Whitney D's Miami road trip diary

VandyMania's Whitney D. followed the Vanderbilt women's basketball team on a recent road trip to Miami, Fla. for a pair of games the Gatorade Holiday Classic tournament. Here's her diary of the trip, including a number of exclusive photos.

The idea had been incubating for a long time. Last year when I went to Arizona to watch Vandy play Purdue at ASU, we flew up early enough to drive up to Kartchner Caverns. The Caverns were spectacular, and the Arizona countryside in the evening was a beautiful sight. Even just walking around the ASU campus in the incredible weather was a pleasure.

So I knew that the fans who had made the trip were going out and about to enjoy the sights and having some memorable meals, but I wondered whether the players had the same opportunities. I didn't have the chance to ask about it then, so I made a mental note to follow up on it in the future. I thought if I was curious, other fans would be interested, too.

I thought about it again in Vermont. Those of us with rental cars spent free time driving to Waterbury to see the Ben & Jerry's factory or the ski area around Stowe. But the team's transportation options and free time were much more limited. Fortunately, the team hotel was sandwiched between beautiful Lake Champlain and the quaint downtown area of Burlington, so they could walk to downtown to shop, sightsee, or just hang out together in the little chunks of free time that they had.

When I learned that the Miami plans included lodging at the Mayfair House Hotel in the heart of Coconut Grove, an older artsy craftsy area of Miami, I thought there would be plenty of interesting and photo-friendly places within easy walking distance. So I talked with Brian Davis, the women's basketball SID, about the possibility of sending my trusty old digital camera out with players during their free time. He talked with some of the players and said we could give it a try. I'd booked a room at the same hotel to simplify logisitics, so I figured we were good to go.

I was wrong. The first fly settled in the ointment Friday afternoon when Brian sent me a copy of the itinerary for the weekend. Under "hotel", the name "Mayfair House" was conspicuously absent. As it had turned out, the funkily elegant, but somewhat old-fashioned, Mayfair House only had sixteen rooms with two queen-sized beds, so they could accommodate only two of the three teams in town for the tournament. So the third team, which unfortunately turned out to be Vanderbilt, had to be stay somewhere else.

"Somewhere else" turned out to be the Dadeland Marriott, located several miles down US 1 on the opposite side of the University of Miami campus. So I moved on to Plan B, which involved giving the digital camera to Brian for the weekend, who said that he'd send it out whenever there were possible photo ops. He also said that he'd take some photos of the trip whenever he could.

From the itinerary, it looked like the tournament banquet on Saturday night at Marty's Bayshore Restaurant would offer the first good non-travel photo opportunity. That's when the second fly hit the ointment. The team was scheduled to arrive in Ft. Lauderdale around 7:30 after changing planes in Orlando.

But air traffic was stacked up around the Ft. Lauderdale airport, and the plane wasn't allowed to leave Orlando until it cleared up. The hour and a half delay meant that the team missed the banquet. Instead, the restaurant sent 15 boxes of the food from the banquet over to the hotel for the team's supper, so that photo op fizzled.

In the meantime, I was exploring the area around the hotel with some other fans who were also staying in Coconut Grove. Right across the street from the Mayfair House is the "CocoWalk", a very compact urban mall with shopping, restaurants, live music at night, and even a movie theater.

In the immediate area there was a variety of restaurants and shops. The Dinner Key Marina and Peacock Park on the shore of Biscayne Bay were about three blocks away.

All around the storefronts in the area we saw posters advertising the "King Mango Strut" to be held Sunday afternoon. The Strut turned out to be a Coconut Grove tradition, started 22 years ago when the King Orange Parade committee rejected a parade application as inappropriate. So the King Mango Strut was born, dedicated to the propostion that nothing, no matter how outrageous or offensive, is inappropriate. I thought that made it a "must see."

I spent some time Sunday morning getting familiar with the Metrorail, which had convenient stops at Coconut Grove, another one right in front of the gym at the University of Miami, and yet another in the office complex attached to the Dadeland Marriott. Afterwards, I watched as much of the parade of the parade as I could before it was time to go to UM for Vandy's game against Rhode Island.

The game, or at least the last 30 minutes of the game and the outcome, put us fans into a celebratory mood, and on the recommendation of Miami's SID, afterwards a group of us went back to Coconut Grove for dinner at the Cafe Tu Tu Tango, located in the CocoWalk across the street from the Mayfair House.

Though we had some initial reservations about the exotic-looking menu, the loud music, and a 30-minute wait while they cleared our table, we ended up loving the food and having a great time. Then I went back across the street to the hotel to finish up the game story.

In the meantime, the team had returned to their hotel after the game and had a postgame meal together there.

While I was in Miami, besides the game story and the photo gallery, I wanted to do an interview with Jenni Benningfield. Brian thought there would probably be a little chunk of free time on Monday after the shootaround at the gym and before the pregame meal at the hotel. Since he couldn't be sure exactly what time she might be available, I packed up some work and took the Metrorail from Coconut Grove to the Dadeland Marriott so that I'd be ready if the opportunity arose and got some work done while I was waiting.

After a while Brian called to say that plans had changed, and they'd be doing a walkthrough before the pregame meal, so there wouldn't be time for an interview that afternoon. We agreed that we'd try again after the game Monday night. So that left me with some time to kill, and I decided explore the area around the Marriott.

The hotel itself was attractive, nicely decorated for Christmas, and attached to a business center with a Metrorail stop. When you step outside the hotel, a major construction site dominates the landscape, complete with chainlink fences, gigantic cranes, clanging piledrivers, and plenty of dust. The Dadeland Mall was located on the far side of the construction desert.

To the left of the construction and across the street from hotel, there's a Publix grocery store. Just past the Publix, I could see the back of a store, which turned out to be a CompUSA store. As far as I could tell, that pretty much exhausted the tourist attractions within easy walking distance. So I worked some more, then took the Metrorail to the gym for the games.

As we all know by now, the Miami-Vanderbilt game turned out to be pretty depressing, from the Vanderbilt point of view, at least. Afterwards, while I was waiting around near the media room, I watched the Vandy players walking disconsolately towards the team bus. Even the Ricardo Montalban sound-alike security guard commented on how sad they looked, in stark contrast to the smiling Miami players, whom he greeted individually with "Hey, beautiful! Great game!" as they filed by.

The team was going to Dan Marino's restaurant for the postgame meal, their only excursion in Miami beyond the hotel and the gym. Brian had work to do back at the hotel, so even though he suspected that the team wouldn't be in the mood for photographs (and who could blame them?), he nonetheless sent the camera along with them just in case. Kristin Schneider had to make some travel arrangements for a recruiting trip, so Kristin, Brian and I took the Metrorail back to the hotel, where I worked on the game story while I waited to see if Jenni would be available after the team returned.

Considerably earlier than I expected, the team bus arrived at the hotel, and Jenni, trouper that she is, wanted to go ahead with the interview. Unsurprisingly, the team's gloomy mood hadn't magically lifted by the time they arrived at the restaurant, so the dinner was quick, and the only photo that seemed appropriate was one taken outside the restaurant. After dinner, they came directly back to the hotel, then left Tuesday morning for their flight back to Nashville. back to Nashville.

On the way home, I thought about what I'd seen and heard on this trip and remembered bits and pieces from the past. I remembered that one of my 20 questions at SEC Media Day was, "The best meal I ever had on a road trip was in ____", and not a single player from any team could give an answer. I remembered Nettie Respondek's hilarious description at her senior banquet of the "Kotex Klan" shenanigan that she cooked up with Candice Storey on a road trip to Mississippi. I remembered the description in Hillary Hager's diary on the official VU website of the team singing "Last Christmas I gave you my heart" in the locker room. I remembered that the first thing Venessa Ferragamo said when I asked her about road trips was "Road trips are soooo much fun! You get to spend quality time with your teammates . . . rooming with one person, you really get to learn a lot about that person."

As fans, I think we remember the places we go, the sights we see, good times in great restaurants, and those are the photos you'll find in my personal photo gallery from the trip. And as fans, we shake our heads and say it's a shame that the team ended up staying out in Dadeland instead of in Coconut Grove.

But I'm not sure that it matters that much to them. For the team, I think a road trip is less about what you eat, where you go and what you see. It's more about basketball -- not just games, but practices, shootarounds, watching film, walkthroughs, too -- and comraderie with teammates. It's a chance to spend time with both your teammates and coaches off the court as well as on. Whether it's celebrating victories, waiting around in airports, talking, singing or joking, or coping with a disappointing loss, you're doing it together.

And if it's your last go-round, like this year is for Venessa, Jenni, Hillary, and Jutta, it's one of the precious few chances left to cherish the remaining time you have with your teammates and coaches before you turn the page to the next chapter in your life.

So the photo gallery I ended up with wasn't quite like the one I envisioned when I started. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it's just exactly the one I really needed.

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Photos by Whitney D for VandyMania.com and Brian Davis of Vanderbilt Media Relations. Click on thumbnails to view a larger image.

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