When the Minnesota Duluth men’s basketball team first started kicking around ideas for a foreign trip, Canada was mentioned.
With its proximity to Minnesota, Canada would have been cheap and easy as far as foreign trips go, but it wouldn’t exactly hit a 10 on the excitement meter (Minnesota, after all, has been called the “11th province”).
No, the Bulldogs wanted to see something they hadn’t seen before, so last month they went to Costa Rica for three games and a week of fun and sun. They just got back last week.
“We were thinking about going to Canada but then some parents of the older guys said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right, and let’s give these guys a real special experience for this trip,’ ” Bulldogs coach Justin Wieck said. “When you start talking Australia or Europe, it gets pretty expensive. This was one of the cheaper options where we could go somewhere fun, somewhere tropical and somewhere that could give our guys a little different perspective.”
UMD got just that in Costa Rica, the small Spanish-speaking Central American country of about five million people closely straddled by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The NCAA allows college basketball programs to make an international trip every four years. While Wieck said it’s common for DI programs, it’s much more rare for DII teams to schedule these. This was the third such trip for UMD men’s basketball, having been to Thunder Bay, Ontario, five summers ago and Seoul, South Korea, in 1988. Gary Holquist, UMD senior development officer, was an assistant coach under Dale Race for the Seoul trip. Holquist called it a “dry run” as the U.S. looked into travel arrangements for the Summer Olympics in Seoul later that summer, to make sure everything went smoothly.
“It worked out great,” Holquist said. “It was an awesome trip, an awesome experience. It gave us good opportunities to play and engage socially with other universities.”
Holquist, who played basketball in Costa Rica in the summer of 1979 as part of a Wisconsin all-star team, has made friends in the country and has since traveled back, but not this year.
“It would have been fun to tag along with the team, but there were a lot of other things going on this summer,” Holquist said, laughing. “But I know it was obviously a great experience for them.”
The Bulldogs said it was just that.
Wieck had asked around the NSIC and knew teams such as Northern State had gone with this same travel group and had spoken highly of it.
“I have nothing but good stuff to say about them,” said UMD senior-to-be Brandon Myer. “The tour guides were really friendly, and I think that was probably the biggest part about why we had such a good experience.”
UMD won all three of its games. The first was a 50-point blowout, but the next two were closely contested as the Bulldogs took on most of the Costa Rican national team. Those guys were older, stronger and more physical, and UMD had to adjust. Wieck joked that handcheck fouls are not a thing in Costa Rica.
The games allowed UMD to start working in new players like Alex Illikainen, a Grand Rapids native who played for Wisconsin, and Yalim Olcay, a Turkish native who played at Western Carolina, as well as the Bulldogs’ three freshmen (Jack Middleton, Drew Blair and Charlie Gorres).
“The timing was perfect,” Wieck said. “Going 3-0 on the trip was definitely our goal, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a competition standpoint. We responded well, but outside of basketball is where I hope we made the biggest strides.
“The time we spent together on campus for 10 days of practice was huge, and the time spent together exploring a new country will be invaluable. Our guys have the luxury of coming back to campus in September and not having to go through the awkwardness of new practices and teammates. I hope we pick right back up where we left off.”
All games were played in San Jose, the capital, and, despite the language barrier, the Bulldogs also helped run a basketball camp for local elementary school children, but the team still had plenty of downtime to check out the Pacific Ocean. Players went down zip lines and surfed, or attempted to surf.
Myer, a 6-foot-7 forward from Superior, led the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding on the trip, he wasn’t much more than fish food while attempting to surf.
“I know some of the guys got up (on their surfboards), but I didn’t, and I’m kind of upset about it,” Myer said, laughing. “Charlie had surfed one time before and was getting up kind of easy. He had the jump on us. He kind of popped up and had that swagger about him, like, ‘Yeah, I know what I’m doing.’ ”
Wieck hopes to do an international trip every four years. Money for this year’s trip was largely raised through fundraising. In previous years, players who worked basketball camps were usually paid about $10 an hour. This year, all that money went toward the trip.
In all, 26 people made the trip, including players, coaches, a trainer, manager and eight parents. None of the Bulldogs had ever been to Costa Rica before. Myer said about the closest time he came to leaving the country was a brief family cruise to Cuba when he was about 12.
“Nothing like this,” Myer said. “It was awesome. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime situations to be able to go somewhere with your teammates and best friends like we did. I don’t think we would have gotten this type of team bonding any other way.”
The people love life and are friendly and laid back in a way that is different from hustle and bustle and punctuality of America, Myer said. The locals call it “pura vida,” meaning “simple life” or “pure life.” In Costa Rica, it’s not just a saying but a way of life.
“They even said that with game times, if it were supposed to be at 8 p.m., we would start at like 8:15 or 8:20 because a ref would show up late and just be like, ‘Pura vida.’
“We were like, ‘What?’ We were showing up at like 7. I think none of us will forget it. I think if we see each other 20 years from now we’ll still be able to talk about it.”
Yes, Canada has a lot of great things, the home of hockey, Gordon Lightfoot and Labatt Blue, but you will probably never be able to swim with a giant sea turtle within 50 yards of you anytime soon in Thunder Bay, as Myer did in Costa Rica.
“I’m sure Canada’s a great place, but this was definitely something a little different,” Myer said. “I don’t think we would have been able to walk out of the place where we were staying and be able to see monkeys and iguanas in Canada.”