By Jenna Ciccotelli, sports editor
The Northeastern University (NU) baseball and volleyball teams traveled to Cuba over winter break to compete with local academic institutions and participate in community service. The Huskies landed in Havana on Dec. 18 and made stops in Pinar del Rio and Alamar over the course of their six-day trip.
“I’m just thankful that we were able to go on a trip like that,” said head baseball coach Mike Glavine. “This is a great complement to their time here at Northeastern.”
The trip was not the first time Northeastern students visited Cuba. A group of university leaders and faculty traveled to the Latin American nation in March 2016 to explore the potential for academic and research partnerships before finalizing agreements with the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez and the University of Havana in June.
For the most recent trip, both teams were originally scheduled to compete against the University of Havana, but the capital city introduced a ban on competitive sports following the death of former Cuban President Fidel Castro in November 2016. These games were replaced with scrimmages against nearby amateur teams.
Outside of their sports, both teams toured Old Havana and Pinar del Rio, visited tobacco factories and explored beaches and marketplaces. The volleyball team went to an urban farm co-op and helped with weeding as a service project. Senior libero and volleyball captain Ashlee Asada said the island exceeded her expectations.
“Before we left, we were given a presentation about what to expect. They set the bar really low,” she said. “Once we were there, it was an incredible experience.”
In their first few days in the country, the members of the NU volleyball program were greeted by a member of the Cuban men’s national team, who led the group through a warm-up routine before a scrimmage with a local youth squad. Later in the week, they played a team from the Vegueros del Pinar del Rio club, the same club the baseball team would play later that day.
After the starting lineups were announced in both Spanish and English, the match began, with Northeastern serving first. Though the score was kept at midcourt, the match was played as a scrimmage, with head coach Ken Nichols making use of much of his roster. After the game, the Huskies donated care packages to their opponents.
On Dec. 20, the baseball team faced their first opponent, a team based out of a seminary in Santiago de Las Vegas, at a dirt field where they had practiced the day before in front of a curious crowd of nearby residents. The audience of about 100 returned at 9 a.m. on game day to catch the action.
After organizing gloves and helmets to be shared with the Cuban team, junior outfielder Mason Koppens stepped to the plate, getting hit by a pitch to become the first Northeastern student to take a base in Cuba in school history. Senior infielder Cam Hanley shot a single up the middle to bring Koppens home, putting the Huskies on the board first.
Both the Huskies and their opponents were successful on the mound, with NU’s pitchers exhibiting consistent delivery and timing. Sophomore Ty Brown and senior Mike Driscoll combined for four strikeouts in the first half of the game and freshman Rick Burroni recorded three across the fifth and sixth innings. The Cuban starting pitcher temporarily stunned the Huskies. They persevered, ending the contest with 13 hits across nine innings, including a fourth inning leadoff double by junior infielder Nolan Lang.
The culture and passion of a country whose national sport is baseball was evident throughout the contest, complete with a visit to right field by a stray pony and a caged bird in the audience. Both sides cheered for each other throughout the contest and the game culminated with a jersey and equipment swap on the mound.
On Dec. 21, the Huskies also faced the Vegueros in a game that was a total juxtaposition of their previous competition. The game took place in a stadium with a large turnout of Cuban fans, complete with an opening ceremony that included the United States’ national anthem and an American flag hanging in center field.
“It was one of those moments that gave you the chills,” said Glavine.
The opposing team proved to be a threat for the Huskies, who lost to Pinar del Rio. However, the Cuban games came before preseason began, a time when, Glavine said, “no one is performing at 100 percent.”
“It’s an interesting time of year for us,” he said. “I like the way we competed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the guys can do now that we’re back on campus.”
However, Glavine stressed that the score was not what was important. The lessons learned in Cuba extend far beyond the diamond, with good timing for a team whose word of the upcoming season is “family.” Glavine himself was eager to shed his head coach label and experience Cuba alongside his team rather than at the helm of it.
“A trip like that brings us closer together,” he said. “I didn’t want to go over there as their head coach, as the guy that was always watching their every move. I just wanted to connect with them, share the experience with them and just be one of them.”
For the volleyball team, Asada said it was inspiring to see what made their Cuban counterparts happy.
“The American view of success is having money, technology and new things, but I really got to see how [in Cuba] they are able to appreciate the little things,” Asada said.
Photo courtesy Mike Skovan, Northeastern Athletics