From a basketball standpoint, the trip allowed the team to get a head start on the upcoming 2016-2017 season. When taking a summer trip, the NCAA allows its teams to hold 10 full practice days with the team's entire roster in preparation for the trip, as well as compete in exhibition games against international competition while on the trip.
Gardner-Webb's trip was hosted by SCORE International, a Christian short term mission organization, and the trip involved much more than just playing basketball. SCORE's (Share Christ Our Redeemer Enterprises) vision is to glorify God through missions in obedience to the Great Commission. The team and staff were engaged in a host of ministry opportunities and humanitarian relief projects in the region around the cities/towns of Santo Domingo, Juan Dolio and San Pedro.
"This trip was a once in a lifetime experience for our players and staff," said head coach Tim Craft. "It was an amazing opportunity to grow as a team – on and off the court – while we also focused on servant leadership and Gospel outreach in the Dominican Republic."
The team departed campus for the airport at 3:30 am on Wednesday, July 27th and landed in the Dominican Republic's capital, Santo Domingo at 1:15 pm. Santo Domingo is the largest city by population (3.8 million in 2010) in the entire Caribbean. All three of GWU's exhibition games were played in the city, but the team was lodged in a hotel in the town of Juan Dolio, which is approximately 30 miles from Santo Domingo.
Despite Wednesday's long day of travel, the Runnin' Bulldogs played their first game that night, winning 62-43 over Club Calera. They followed Wednesday night's contest with a game on Thursday night, and the final game on Friday night. Gardner-Webb dropped a tight battle on Thursday against Club Deportivo San Lazaro, 68-59. The opposing team had several players that competed for the Dominican Republic national team, including Dominican star and pro veteran, Jack Michael Martinez, who has played professionally in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Italy.
On Friday night in the final contest of the trip, the Runnin' Bulldogs defeated Club San Carlos 90-75. In order for every player to gain valuable game experience, Coach Craft rotated all 13 players on the roster, playing each guy between 10-20 minutes in each of the three games. Junior guard Jamaal Robateau and sophomore forward DJ Laster led the team in scoring, averaging 12.6 and 7.6 points per game, respectively.
Gardner-Webb was led in rebounding by senior Tyrell Nelson, junior L'Hassane Niangane, and Laster with each player grabbing a total of 13 rebounds during the trip. Sophomore guard Laquincy Rideau had a solid week dishing out 13 assists while committing only four turnovers through the three contests.
A major focus of this trip for the team and coaching staff was working with SCORE International to serve the region in various ways. SCORE missionaries coordinated a variety of ministry opportunities for GWU's student-athletes and coaches to take part in.
On Thursday morning the team traveled to SCORE headquarters and worked together to pack 45 bags of food. It was very eye-opening for all to know that each small bag would provide food for a family for up to 2 weeks. The team and SCORE staff then traveled to a remote sugarcane village about 45 minutes east of Juan Dolio.
Upon arrival, the team spent a couple hours playing sports and spending time with many of the children in the village. Later in the morning, SCORE staff and GWU players and coaches gathered together in the village church. One of SCORE's missionaries presented the Gospel to the packed church, then GWU's basketball players passed out the bags of food to the families that were selected to receive them. As the players gave the food bags to the family member, they were also able to offer a prayer and encouraging words that God would bless their family.
"Even after this first full day in the Dominican Republic and seeing a whole other way of life that these people live everyday happily and almost care-free, I can say that we are extremely blessed to have the privileges that we have today," said senior forward Tyrell Nelson. "Being able to bless and serve these people and share the Gospel with them was amazing, and an experience that we won't soon forget."
The team's next ministry opportunity was on Friday morning at the Pasitos de Jesus Girls Home in the town of Boca Chica. This orphanage is home to around 40 girls, ages three to sixteen years old. All of these children have been totally abandoned by their families for one reason or another and many of them have suffered abuse by their families. The motto of the home is "I am, who the Great I AM, says that I am."
Gardner-Webb basketball spent the morning trying to reinforce that wonderful statement by showing the girls the love of their Heavenly Father. The morning proved to be a joyous time spent coloring, playing games, singing and dancing together.
"The few hours we spent at the orphanage were really special to me," said junior Jamaal Robateau. "Knowing that these girls came from terrible situations, and were found and brought to this orphanage, but yet still happy and full of joy is really a true blessing. The grace of God really is beautiful!"
On Saturday, the team was able to enjoy some fun in the Caribbean sun. The team took a boat ride to an island beach, off the coast of La Romana where they were able to swim, snorkel, play beach volleyball, and even cliff dive. It was a very unique opportunity for the entire group and many of the student-athletes were able to try some activities that they had never experienced before in their lives.
Gardner-Webb's last full day in the Dominican Republic was Sunday, the Lord's Day, and it was filled with worship, ministry and much more. The team attended a morning worship service in the village of Quisqueya at Iglesias Bautista Christo Es El Camino, or in English, Christ is The Way Baptist Church. SCORE brought an interpreter to interpret the sermon into English for the team to understand.
During the service, Coach Craft was invited by the pastor to speak to the congregation about the team's mission trip, GWU's ministry, and also give his personal testimony. In the afternoon, GWU's basketball players and coaches travelled together to another rural sugar cane village near the town of San Pedro. It was another impactful experience, as they spent time playing with and loving on the children in the village.
Baseball is a huge part of the culture in the Dominican Republic, and playing baseball with the children proved to be a great way to connect with them. Later in the evening, the team was blessed to be able to gather in the local church and hear from two Godly young, Dominican men. Daniel Mercedes and Jose Guzman have recently planted a growing church in this village and they shared their personal testimonies with the group, and spoke passionately about all of the exciting ways that God is working in their community.
"It was great seeing how God works in other people's lives in a completely different country," said Robateau.
Each player and staff member that participated in the trip will remember the week in the Dominican Republic for a lifetime, and this summer will certainly prove valuable for this upcoming season. There were special bonds built and a wonderful chemistry formed throughout the process. But there were also powerful memories made and messages heard that have made a lasting impact on each one of these student-athletes and coaching staff members.
"I am so thankful for the way that the Lord has used our program this summer," remarked Craft. "This trip provided our players and staff a wonderful opportunity and platform to share God's love with others, and in doing so, we have all been impacted in a major way by the experience."