the power of connection Inside Drake Women's Basketball's life-changing trip to Italy

The message to the women's basketball team centered on communication and leadership, skills long valued in athletics.

What made it unique for the Drake University players was the setting in which it was delivered.

As they listened to Larry Zimpleman, the retired CEO of the Principal Financial Group, waves from the Adriatic Sea lapped the shore outside their waterfront restaurant in the city of Rimini on Italy's eastern coast.

Yes, they were a long way from their cozy, familiar campus, in a country none of them had ever visited, experiencing a culture that, until recently, they barely knew.

And that was the whole idea.

Lizzy Wendell, Caitlin Ingle and their 10 teammates were exposed to new sights and sounds and scents -- and challenged academically as well. All 12 took a course in conjunction with the trip, Italy in a Global Economy, spending four weeks in a Drake classroom and furthering their discussions as they traveled the country.

It's all part of what the athletics department promotes as the Bulldog Way, an effort that focuses not only on honing an athlete's skills and fostering competition, but on building the whole person through strong academics and leadership values.

"We believe there is no better learning platform on a college campus anywhere than Division I sports," Athletics Director Sandy Hatfield Clubb said. "It is something that helps your young people stretch themselves in ways that few other places on campus do.

"Lots of places stretch people, but the accountability (in athletics) is so high because we put them in the middle of a court, turn lights on, bring people in, keep score, have officials and then we all judge how well they're doing. Not to say there are no ways to stretch on campus, because there really are, but I think athletics has the opportunity to be a very special platform in leadership learning."

Jeff Kappen, an assistant professor of international business at Drake, taught the class, then accompanied the team to Italy as they toured the country -- followed by a second bus filled with fans and family members. They visited Rome, the Vatican, Florence, the tiny republic of San Marino, Venice and Lake Como, where all eyes were alert for a possible George Clooney sighting.

"I really enjoyed the class," Lizzy said. "I think it really set us up for what we could expect over there."

Oh yes, they also played three games, winning the last two.

It truly was an eye-opening experience for all.

The team, staff and traveling crew together for one final photo after the Bulldogs' last game, a blowout win.

"I was really proud to be from America," Caitlin said, "but it's a humbling experience to be able to go somewhere else and see the way they do things and recognize that maybe your way isn't always the best or the right way."

Junior Paige Greiner was intrigued by how the people went about their daily lives.

"Here, everywhere you go has a direct path ... from Point A to Point B," she said. "For them it's kind of, I start at Point A, but I might hit B, C and D before I end up at the final destination. They're like, if something catches their eye or they want to do something else, they'll do that and still end up getting where they want to go.

"I thought that was pretty interesting because my whole life has always been very routine and there, it's not so much. That was really cool to see and experience. They still get work done."

Then to see the Colosseum and consider that those walls have stood for nearly 2,000 years, to gaze at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, to admire the art of Florence, ride a boat on the canals of Venice and soak up the beauty of Lake Como -- it was almost sensory overload. And to make it even more special, they did it as a team.

From top left to right: the famous Colosseum in Rome, Florence's Duomo, the canals of Venice and Lake Como - sights perfect for advancing connection & memorable photo ops.

"I think it's really rare to go on a trip like that with so many people that you're so close to," Caitlin said. "Usually you go with one or two people or a family. Seeing something like that with a bunch of different people that you're best friends with, it's a once in a lifetime trip, it really is."

They also saw contrasts, from the hustle and bustle and crowds of Rome to the more peaceful atmosphere of Lake Como in the country's far north, tucked into the foothills of the Alps.

"It's more laid back, relaxed. You sit at coffee for hours," sophomore Becca Jonas said. "It's not just go, go, go. At that point in our trip, it was the end. We had three days at Lake Como, so we were kind of doing the same thing -- relaxing."

Lake Como provided the perfect setting to cap off a magnificent trip.

Hundreds of college and university teams take foreign trips in the summer, so the basketball part wasn't unique. What Drake is trying to do is complement such trips with a learning experience that, as Sandy says, can stretch athletes beyond what they thought were their limits.

"The value of our program is to be authentic, and I think you're the most authentic when you're completely out of your comfort zone, which we all were," Coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "So you can't help but grow closer if you can appreciate that and respect that from each other."

Drake began expanding its foreign trips when the football team went to East Africa in 2011. Players put on clinics, worked in community service, played a team from Mexico in the first American football game on the African continent and then climbed through vegetation, rock fields and snow to the top of 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro.

Talk about an experience that stretches you.

Sandy accompanied the team on that trip, calling it a "very emotionally challenging time." One day, as some players worked at an orphanage, a baby was left at the doorstep. One of the players scooped up the child and Sandy will never forget the sight.

"There he was," she said, "tears running down from his eyes, holding this infant that was literally left on the doorstep."

In 2015, the men's and women's soccer teams played several matches and took a January term class in Guadalajara, Mexico. Jeff and Matthew Mitchell, associate professor of international business and strategy at Drake, taught that class as team members studied alongside local students and also heard from Mexican professors.

Other trips for Drake teams combining overseas competition with class work are being planned.

"It is our goal that all of our sports have this kind of experience," Sandy said.

In the class for the basketball team, Jeff covered areas such as economics, politics, social issues, national security and culture. The players also learned some basic Italian so they could get by in a restaurant or shop. He taught at the Shivers Basketball Practice Facility, making it convenient for the team to go to class immediately after their morning workouts. Players spent the afternoons and evenings relaxing and studying. Jeff gave an exam every Monday.

"I know they were studying for me at night because that's when the questions came through the email," he said.

It was an unfamiliar subject for most of the players and a challenge for Jeff, too, in tailoring the class to this particular group. He had students from all four years, which is rare in a college class, only one has a business-related major and it's unusual for Jeff to have a class without international students.

"I didn't change the content as much as I changed how I delivered the content," he said. "I used basketball as a context once or twice to teach some of the principles because I knew the students would be able to grab hold of that. So not so much the core content changed as the context in which we delivered it."

The last week of class, the players paired off to make presentations on topics that included the Roman Empire, the Renaissance and formation of the modern Italian state and contemporary politics in the country. One pair profiled the places they would visit on the trip and what they could expect at each one.

Then, for the last hour or so of class, Jeff arranged for the use of a kitchen and the players cooked an Italian meal, using recipes for three dishes he picked up from his former father-in-law, who was from Italy. They made peperonata, a sweet pepper-based salad; penne primavera with chicken and rosemary butter cookies.

"I got the ingredients and we all went," he said. "They were chopping and cooking and sautéing. We made a big Italian lunch. That was kind of our send-off for the class."

Once in Italy, Jeff noticed that along with Larry Zimpleman, the fans and family group accompanying the team included Robyn Wilkinson, vice president of compensation for Catholic Health Initiatives, and Jill Hittner, the chief financial officer for Principal Global Investors and the mother of Becca Hittner, a freshman on the team.

Seeing an opportunity to complement what he taught as they traveled, Jeff asked them to speak to the team.

"Sometimes students think professors just went to school all the time," he said. "When professionals tell them the same thing I tell them, it adds a little more weight to the message."

What resulted were discussions not only on communication and leadership, but dealing with high stress situations and conflict, what it's like to be a woman in the business world, recognizing and coping with cultural differences among groups, globalization and investments. Jill talked about the services that Principal provides to give the players a better understanding of one of Des Moines' most prominent companies.

"What kind of hit us is that Jennie and our coaches are really setting us up to be successful, not only in basketball, but in life after basketball," Lizzy said. "And that when we graduate, really having a plan of what we want to do and how we can be successful in that."

Along those lines, the trip inspired Lizzy and Caitlin to look seriously at playing professionally in Europe after this, their final season with the Bulldogs.

"We both kind of thought about it before, but it was really cool to be there and see it, teams that we could possibly play against or on, areas that we could be in," Lizzy said. "We felt really comfortable over there. I think it gave us both really good insights to that."

Robyn's talk on handling conflict hit home with Paige.

"The thing I really took away was, take three deep breaths before you respond," she said. "It was good to get that perspective because anytime you're on a team, there's going to be conflict, there's going to be high stress situations. So how can you deal with those effectively to get a better outcome."

Robyn Wilkinson addresses the team during their final class in Italy.

Larry, a longtime fan of the women's basketball program, saw the trip as a showcase of what it means to be a Drake athlete.

"It's not that Drake is sending these athletes there so they can just sort of have a good time and stay up late every night," he said. "It's actually meant to be a meaningful academic as well as a personal experience. I think that says a lot about how Drake wants to run an athletic program."

Larry and his wife Kathi have known Jennie's parents, Terry and Joyce Lillis, since they were kids growing up in Williamsburg in eastern Iowa. He was thrilled when Jennie got the Drake job in 2012.

"Having seen Jennie for so many years, I don't know that I've seen a more natural leader or a person who has stronger natural leadership skills than Jennie does," he said. "Sometimes people are just innately wired in a way that that's just who they are. That's Jennie.

"In some respects, from the standpoint of the players, it makes a little bit more of a challenge because not everybody is as comfortable or natural in a leadership position as somebody like Jennie is. Those are some of the things we talked about as well."

The players received three hours credit for the class. And they earned it.

"It was not a slough class," Jeff said.

The women's basketball team cooks a classic Italian meal with Dr. Jeffrey Kappen before the big trip.

Bus rides gave Dr. Kappen and the team a chance to continue learning about Italian business and culture.

Following a fun afternoon at the beach on the Italian coast, former Principal CEO Larry Zimpleman spoke to the team about communication and leadership.

The basketball challenged them, too, starting from the moment they set foot in their first gym in Ponte Buggianese, about 30 miles west of Florence. The first thing Caitlin, the team's senior point guard, noticed was the 3-point arc: It was farther from the basket than the collegiate line.

"Nobody told us that," Paige said, laughing at the memory.

Traveling was called differently and that also was a surprise. They couldn't catch the ball on the move. They had to catch it and have both feet down before they could dribble.

"In that game we got called for probably 25 travels," Caitlin said. "The next game, they called it only every so often. We got better."

The Bulldogs lost their opener 77-58 to a German professional club that had players who were older and certainly more savvy in the ways of international basketball.

"I'd love to get that first game back because that was the toughest competition we had," Jennie said. "But I also think we got exactly what we needed. We got exposed where we need to get exposed, we got humbled where we needed to get humbled and then I think we did some really good things, too."

The Bulldogs went 2-1 on the hardwood during their Italian excursion.

After listening to Larry's talk, which came during the team's pregame meal, the Bulldogs beat a regional Italian team, the Adriatic Sea Sirens, 85-66 behind Lizzy's 22 points. They finished their schedule with an 88-71 victory over the Italian Select Team, Lizzy scoring 23 points and Becca 16. And it would seem the Bulldogs adjusted to the more distant 3-point line. Check out the video from that last game and you'll see Lizzy and Nicole Miller drilling 3s from the left corner.

You'll also notice a Drake banner and a section of fans in Drake gear. With a traveling party of around 60, Drake had the largest group of any women's basketball team that toured this past summer, bolstered by family members and friends who paid their own way because they wanted to be a part of it.

"That's Jennie," Sandy said. "She's the Pied Piper."

"I think it speaks a lot to the program and what Jennie's building there," Jill added. "She's building a focus on what I would say was the total woman. That's one of the things that attracted my daughter. It's not just the basketball playing aspects. It's the public speaking, it's the service provider, all the service hours they do, it's the interaction with the fans, building a culture that is very supportive. I think people just want to be a part of it."

Caitlin said with so many fans watching, it was almost like playing at home. The Drake contingent even got some of the locals involved.

"I looked across the stands and I saw my mom sitting with two random people," Becca said. "I asked her after the game, 'Who are these people?' 'Oh, she said, 'we just ran into them, told them who we were and asked, do you want to come watch?' So they gave them the location, they followed the bus and they came.

"It's just kind of how Drake is. Everyone is welcome. Come support us. We're fun to watch."

On the final night of the trip, each player stood at a group dinner and thanked everyone for their support in making the trip with them.

"We know we're lucky to have the fans that we do," Becca said. "I know they enjoyed it. It will just mean that much more seeing them in the stands and remembering those times we had there."

As valuable as it is for a team to play a handful of games in the summer, the 10 practices allowed before a foreign trip are even more helpful. They allowed Jennie to start putting in some offenses and defenses, which gave her players a head start when preseason practice began in October. It was especially beneficial for the team's three freshmen in helping them blend in with the veterans, and for someone like Becca, who has returned after missing last season because of a knee injury.

"Nobody puts in press breaks in the summer or puts in end-of-game situations in the summer, so to be able to do those kinds of things was really fun and refreshing," Jennie said. "It was really exciting for our team to come in every day to do something they've never done and then play on a floor they've never played on. And you know what? We just got better."

And they returned as true global citizens, more aware of what goes on beyond their own shores, just one more part of the experience that comes with being an athlete at Drake.

"It's one of the ways that we can be something very different," Sandy said. "If they want more uniforms to wear and they want private planes to fly on all the time, we're not the place for them. But if they want a deep, meaningful, integrated experience, their education and their sport integrated at a very, very rudimentary level, in a way that can help them discover who they are and find a version of the best self, I think Drake is the place that I would want my daughter to choose because of these kind of experiences."

Not only that, these Bulldogs play some darn good basketball.

"They're really, really good basketball players, but more important, they're just really good people," Larry said. "And they seem to just genuinely enjoy each other. You don't see two groups and each group kind of works independently. It is one group, it's one team. They do things together. They enjoy each other. It's fun to watch."

Words that warm a coach's heart.



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