Collegiate athletics is filled with rivals. One team against the other, battling to determine a winner. So much focus on the final outcome. But recently Greenville University and Principia College formed a partnership, showing that it is possible to be rivals on the court and come together off to unite for one purpose. The Greenville volleyball program has been visiting the Dominican Republic for seven years, alternating each year between the men's and women's programs. However, this past summers' trip was unique. This year Greenville Assistant Coach Ivan Estevez served as the host for a conference rival, Principia and their women's volleyball team.
"We have been going to the Dominican Republic with Coach Estevez since 2010. He does an amazing job putting it all together. He is very connected with the church, orphanages, and volleyball clubs," said Greenville University head coach Tom Ackerman.
Those annual mission trips by Greenville caught the attention of Principia College head coach Mary Ann Sprague and her team.
"We do a week of giving at the start of every school year. After talking to Ivan and Tom and seeing some of the amazing things that happen during their international trip we decided we would like that experience," said Principia College head coach Mary Ann Sprague.
As discussions progressed the coaches sat down together, not to discuss plays on the court, but strategies for a joint trip that resulted with Coach Estevez agreeing to serve as the guide for the Principia volleyball teams' trip to the Dominican Republic.
The trip would last a full week, with players and coaches not only spending time visiting orphanages and various community centers but also getting a chance to play volleyball against international competition; including several friendly games of beach volleyball and downtime to explore and learn more about the Dominican Republic culture.
"The experience the girls get over there is amazing," said Greenville assistant coach Ivan Esteves. "They get to see a different culture and fellowship with other teams in a different country. This trip is perfect for any team. It helps you develop the comradery on the team and truly appreciate what you have in the United States."
As fun as playing volleyball on beautiful beaches was for the student-athletes, it was the time off the court that made a lasting impression.
"My trip was the best trip I have ever taken," said Greenville junior Maci Bonacorsi. "It was so cool to go to a different country and not be at a resort so you get to see the different lifestyles of people. It was amazing to be able to play volleyball with my teammates but also help kids and visit an orphanage; they are always so caring and loving."
"The trip was phenomenal," said Sprague. "The cultural differences and our ability to serve and see those children; everywhere we went they were so grateful. And the people in the schools, orphanage, it was so meaningful."
That feeling of meaning and having a purpose carried over for the players onto the court as well even after the trip.
"Ivan is amazing, he is so much fun. We loved getting to know him and his family," said Principia senior Amanda Roberts. "It honestly didn't matter, we didn't care who he was or where he came from. We loved being with him and learning more about his family. Then when we came back here and saw him at our first game against Greenville and we all just ran over and hugged him because he feels like family now."
"To be able to hang out with Principia was great. They are so kind and it is so cool that we are able to do this and share our experiences in the Dominican Republic."
Greenville and Principia are two of the more successful volleyball programs in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, making a combined 35 appearances in the conference tournament. Sometimes it is easy to dismiss the opponent on the other side of the net. But a trip like this, blending coaches from both programs and creating shared experiences for the student-athletes shows that there is so much more that is possible because of college athletics. You can still compete with each other but life is more than just winning and losing.
"I think Tom and I share something in common in that we want to celebrate progress and great teamwork," said Sprague. "There is a great kinship between the teams in that we are here for the kids. The ultimate form of competition should not include bad sportsmanship. These are young women that are going to go forth. So if they can just learn to compete hard and go after the win and then just love the game and each other. That's really enough. That's life."
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