Two East Valley high schools are about to play football (not futbol) in Ireland.
Both expressed excitement about this unique journey, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of its kids, coaches and staff; that it will be worth the work involved to make this happen.
Hamilton faces Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame and Notre Dame faces Father Judge (Philadelphia) as part of a 12-team Global Ireland Football Tournament, an annual showcase of high school and college programs from around America and beyond. The week culminates with everyone attending the University of Notre Dame vs. Navy college game on Saturday.
Notre Dame is chomping at the bit to do it again. The 60 participants took a 3:30 a.m. bus ride Tuesday to the airport, a cross-country flight, a five-hour layover at New York’s JFK airport, a flight to Shannon, Ireland and a 4 1/2-hour bus ride to Dublin. They arrived at their hotel late afternoon Wednesday and immediately went to practice.
It’s a week of events, education, tours, organization, keeping track of 50 teenagers in a foreign country and 18 months worth of planning. For both schools, it cost $2,800 per kid to make the trip.
Gregory said nearly all the money was through school contributions (Notre Dame is part of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix), family contributions and kids doing odd jobs the past two years (working at local golf tournaments and selling concessions at University of Phoenix Stadium).
“I don’t care what a pain the rear end it is,” Notre Dame coach Gary Gregory said. “I think we might do it again.”
The other program? Maybe not.
Hamilton took three times as many people as Notre Dame, an 80-kid roster plus coaches, staff, cheerleaders and the band. Hamilton had its group on three different travel itineraries, all leaving at different times and with one group needing three flights (two layovers) to reach Dublin.
Hamilton didn’t receive any financial help form the Chandler Unified School District, but the Huskies sounded fine with having to do this solo. The district’s idea being if it contributes toward one of its schools’ major endeavors, it has to help every time another of its schools wants to do something similar, and that could cause money problems.
Money was problem No. 1 for the Huskies to begin with. Everyone raised all of their own funds, and Belles said approximately 10-12 kids didn’t make the trip because they couldn't raise enough money.
Still, the amount of time and effort required by the kids and staff dwarfed Hamilton’s previous long-distance football trips to Florida (2008) and Ohio (2006).
“This is probably the first and last time we do something like this,” Belles said.
Hamilton was approached by the Global Ireland organization in January 2010 because its organizer, Patrick Steenbrege, is a University of Notre Dame grad along with Belles. Steenbrege met Belles during a Notre Dame football alumni gathering in 1999 (Belles was a quarterback of the 1988 national championship team under Lou Holtz), and the Huskies are one of three public schools participating.
When Steenbrege asked Belles about any other schools who might be interested, Belles mentioned the late Scot Bemis at Notre Dame, and Steenbrege called Bemis that day.
“It all started with Scot and us at Paradise Valley on a freezing night coaching (girls) soccer, and we’re standing on the sidelines shivering, and out of nowhere he mentions playing a football game in Ireland,” said Gregory, then Bemis’ defensive coordinator in football and assistant girls soccer coach at the school. “We called four or five parents and a couple hours later we met and we thought it would be great.”
Even Gregory noted the wear logistically required to pull off a feat like this — “It’s five things a day, a text, email, phone call. Every day is a little something else. It’s been tough.”
But Gregory said he’d happily do it all again if invited back or anywhere else.
Hamilton, however, is a larger entity in every facet, and, unless there’s a coaching change down the line, the Huskies better soak up every minute on the other side of the world.
“The headaches involved are too numerous,” Belles said. “It’ll be a great trip and experience for all these kids. Some haven’t been out of Arizona before, let alone the country, and who knows if some of these guys will again. So this could be once-in-a-lifetime for them and for Hamilton.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.