An Education of a Lifetime

Jan. 16, 2009

Through the first nine games of the 2008-09 season, the UCF women's basketball team played just two games at the UCF Arena, and those were on back-to-back nights in late November. Beginning with its season opener at Colorado on Nov. 16, and concluding with an away game at Jacksonville on Dec. 16, the UCF players spent much of the first month of the season away from Orlando and away from the comforts of their own apartments in the Towers at Knights Plaza.

During the 31 days, spanning from the Colorado game to the Jacksonville game, the team spent 12 nights in seven different hotels, hung out in six different airports, logged nearly 20 hours on numerous buses and studied and ate meals in various hotel ballrooms and meeting rooms.

One might think there would be complaints from the Knights because of all of this traveling, but that is before you hear these young women have, among other things, also seen the Rocky Mountains, swam with fish deep in the waters of the Caribbean, watched a tropical bird show and eaten dinner in a restaurant overlooking the coast of the Virgin Islands.

"These trips are like mini vacations," said sophomore Emma Cannon. "We get to see different places, we get to eat for free and we stay in nice hotels. All you have to do is go out there and play basketball. It is a privilege to travel like this and see different places. If I was only a student I would probably just be sitting in my dorm room right now instead of being on the road experiencing different places and things."

UCF played non-conference games at Colorado, Alabama, Florida Gulf Coast and Jacksonville, but the obvious highlight of the early-season travels for the Knights was the trip to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the team spent five nights during Thanksgiving Week while participating in the Paradise Jam.

"I think traveling is unique in a sense because it also provides education," said head coach Joi Williams. "We talk about being educated in the classroom, but traveling is also a good way for the players to be educated. It also helps us as a team to bond and develop chemistry. You learn a lot about your teammates being away from home and having to live with each other."

"I think it was a huge privilege for us to go to the Virgin Islands," said sophomore Chelsie Wiley. "It is probably a once in a lifetime experience for most of us because we could not afford to go there on our own, and I am very thankful for that opportunity."

Wiley said that snorkeling was "definitely her favorite part of the trip, and seeing all the different types of fish swimming in the ocean was incredible," she continued. "They were not scared of us at all, but I was scared of them."

Numerous Knights, even Cannon, who admitted to being afraid to swim, stated that snorkeling in the waters of the Caribbean was their favorite part of being in the Virgin Islands.

"Snorkeling was so much fun," said Cannon. "I was kind of scared to swim, but I had the lifejacket and the noodle to hold me up. We were swimming with different fish and it was so cool. We also saw the remains of a shipwreck underwater."

Snorkeling may have been the favorite activity of the players in the Virgin Islands and on the road so far this season, but eating seems to be a close second.

"The food is great on the road," said freshman Ashia Kelly. "We have gone to a variety of different restaurants, and I like to experience different foods. I think the buffet meal in the Virgin Islands is definitely in my top few meals I have ever had, and it may even be at the top. It had a lot of variety."

The sight-seeing, the activities and the good food have undoubtedly been great experiences for the Knights, but one thing a student-athlete on the road must remember is that just because you are away from campus, it does not mean your classes stop happening in Orlando.

"It is a challenge because there are so many distractions, but (academic advisor) Sarah Hill does a great job of helping them remain focused," said Williams. "As a coaching staff we always emphasize the importance of academics and that school is the reason they are here, first and foremost. We try to keep them focused and structured on the road with study hall so they will use their time wisely."

For that reason, one important aspect of a road trip is academics, and the players always spend time on the road in study halls doing assignments, reading and sometimes even taking exams.

"The most important thing on the road is to make sure that they are reading and keeping up with their assignments," said Hill, an Assistant Director for Academic Services for Student-Athletes who travels with the women's basketball team. "Just because they are gone, classes do not stop."

For younger student-athletes, it can be a difficult transition learning how to balance an academic schedule while on the road, and Hill says it gets easier as they go through college.

"By the time the players are juniors and seniors they understand their responsibilities, are better at communicating with instructors and know how much time they will be out of the classroom," said Hill. "They have things better prepared for the road."

With the increased access and importance of the internet, student-athletes have seen the benefits of reading notes online, E-mail communication with both professors and tutors, and the ability to complete assignments online, just as if they were on campus.

"It is not hard being on the road, but it can be a little much at times. You just have to handle it with maturity," said Kelly, a freshman. "I think the key to staying on top of your grades is organization and keeping things straight. You have to know when things are due, when you need to approach your professors, and how to use the time you have wisely to get things done for school."

No matter where the team's destination, whether it is a nearly weeklong trip to the Virgin Islands or an overnight trip to play an in-state opponent, the Knights say they benefit just from being around each other and building team chemistry.

"The best part about being on the road is getting to know your teammates better, especially those who we do not live with [in the same apartments] on campus," said Wiley. "We trade roommates each and every trip, and that helps us get closer as a team."

As the calendar turns to 2009, Conference USA play will continue to send UCF to various places, including Houston, Memphis and a pair of trips to New Orleans, site of the Conference USA Tournament. By season's end, the Knights will have covered over 20,000 miles and played in nine different states, and rest assured the players will not be complaining about the experiences they have shared, the sights they have seen and definitely not the food they have eaten.

"I think it is an honor to be in a position to be with this group of girls and go out and experience the things that a lot of other college students do not get to," said Kelly, a Kilgore, Texas, native who says she can not wait to play at Houston. "Together, we get to experience more than just basketball, we get to experience life."

- Andrew Gavin