NICA BLOG: Off to Nicaragua, and we'll never be the same
By SCOTT WARD
GREELEY -- In a little less than 24 hours from now I and the rest of the Northern Colorado Volleyball program will step off a plane in Managua, Nicaragua, and begin a weeklong journey that no one in the travel party will likely soon forget.
We're headed to a country, after all, that is considered the poorest in Central America and, according to recent studies, features an economy that sees 47 percent of its population subsisting on fewer than $2 a day.
That's a tough sentence to write -- I'm not going to lie -- and seeing those kinds of living conditions up close, without a movie theater filter to ease the pain, will be something that I know will stick with me for the rest of my life.
I'm sure the players and support-staff members who are set to convene tomorrow morning at DIA are feeling similar thoughts tonight, as we all pack our suitcases and debate the "importance" of taking this shirt or leaving those pants, knowing that many people we will see over the next few days would gladly swap places with us in a heartbeat.
Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Benson and her assistant coaches constantly talk about the importance of their players being "comfortable being uncomfortable," and this trip about 2,200 miles southeast has been in the works for awhile now with that mantra in mind.
During the 2011 season, Benson and her Bears had a home match against Northern Arizona moved into Northern Colorado's Auxiliary Gym after a leak sprung inside Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion and left the playing surface unplayable for what was a key Big Sky Conference match.
The Northern Colorado coaching staff was worried at the time that the last-minute switch would interfere with their players' mind-sets, but those concerns proved about as far from the outcome as possible.
The Bears took the change in stride and cruised past the Lumberjacks in a straight-sets victory.
That was a seminal moment for Benson and her 2011 team -- Northern Colorado lost just three times the rest the season and advanced to its second NCAA Tournament in three seasons -- and that flexible approach will be mandatory between tomorrow and next Tuesday.
The plan is for us all to take part in as much community service as we can while we're in Nicaragua, but as our informational trip packet states in bold on the top of the very first page: Volleyball is the No. 1 priority.
Northern Colorado is scheduled to compete six times during our stay in Central America, against the Nicaragua national team and other national teams from surrounding countries that compare to top-level NCAA Division I teams, and the experience gleaned from those matches will pay huge dividends this fall when the Bears try to qualify for back-to-back NCAA fields.
I talked for a bit with Benson late Monday afternoon, and our conversation about the upcoming trip slowly drifted toward the Bears' amazing experience in southeast China four years ago.
Benson and I talked about how much has changed since that trip -- within in her program and within the Northern Colorado Department of Athletics -- and we talked about how those 10 days in Beijing and Shanghai were memorable beyond compare.
We also talked about how this trip will be nothing like that.
In Benson's words: "China was very low-key, a lot like a vacation, and it allowed our girls to see the sights and experience a culture that is one of the most unique in our world. When we traveled to Beijing right before the  Olympics, there was a lot of sightseeing. That trip will be considered plush compared to our Nicaragua trip. The community-service projects we will be involved with in Nicaragua will likely be the highlight of the trip because that is where we learn the lesson of how blessed we really are playing college volleyball in the U.S.
"This trip will be very different from China. This trip is going to be a lot more … raw."
I've got to say: her search and dramatic pause for words at the end of that sentence did, in fact, make me feel a little uncomfortable, but that's the point of all this, I guess. The Northern Colorado student-athletes are expected to achieve success on this three-city tour while dealing with all sorts of distractions, and the same challenge will be there for the rest of us, too.
We're not about to embark on a vacation. We're headed to Managua, San Juan del Sur and Granada with an aim of broadening our horizons and helping Benson and her program set the stage for the next step in the progression of Northern Colorado Volleyball.
I first started working for Northern Colorado in February 2008, and one of the first people I met during my first week on the job was Jenny Glenn, who was and still is one of Benson's assistants. She quickly introduced herself, welcomed me to the team and then succinctly asked me if I would be interested in traveling with the team to China and documenting the trip for fans back home.
I had just moved to Greeley from Kansas City and was just getting acclimated to my new surroundings, and here was Glenn asking me to literally travel to the other side of the world.
To that point, my only previous experience with "international travel" had been a weeklong stay on the island of St. Croix, with my wife, brother and sister-in-law, but that hardly counts.
But, how could I have said no to such an opportunity? So, I tagged along on a trip of a lifetime and have had a front-row seat ever since to the incredible ascent Benson has taken her program on since that trip four years ago.
The Bears have claimed three Big Sky Conference Championships (regular season and postseason) since returning from China in May 2008 and have become one of the best collegiate volleyball programs in the western United States.
Now, it's four years later and Benson's team is on the cusp again of a program-altering experience.
And I can't tell you how excited I am to once again be along for the ride.
"The China trip was really a big stepping stone in the building of our program," Benson says. "The expectation for success and the commitment from everyone involved with our program went way up. We expect this trip to do the same. It will be another launching point to the next level of success on the national scale, not just within our conference. With six starters returning this fall, we have very high expectations and a tough schedule to accomplish big things this year. This international experience will give us an advantage in achieving our goals.
"We are very excited about the trip. It has been a few weeks since we've played together [during spring exhibition matches] so, we're ready to get on the court again. We're also ready to experience a new culture and environment. Part of being a great competitor is being comfortable with different surroundings and external factors. This will be a great trip for that."
I took about 3,000 pictures while we were in China in 2008 and former players Lauren Carter and Allison Raguse kept running journals of the trip that were published on this Web site.
I'm going to document this trip a little differently.
I'm still planning on taking a lot of pictures -- my wife is already thrilled to sit through the slideshow when I get back! (she's really not …) -- but I'm also going to try and blog each day and include video segments with as many of the student-athletes as possible.
I say "try" there because I have no idea the kind of internet connection that's going to be available in each of our stops along the way. We're told Web access won't be a problem, but I'm starting the trip on the right foot and taking a flexible wait-and-see approach.
So, stay tuned throughout the week to UNCBears.com and follow along as the 24 members of "Northern Colorado Volleyball's Nicaragua Trip 2012" come closer as a team and experience all things Nicaragua.
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