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Summer travel blog: Bucknell weathers a heat wave in Belgium and takes in the history at Normandy

Matt O’Reilly recaps the team’s travels and win over the Ghent Hawks

Matt O’Reilly

This summer, Mid-Major Madness is teaming up with schools across the country as they travel overseas to compete against elite competition and soak up the culture. Student-athletes will blog their experiences for us via written posts, photos, video, and just about anything else they want.

Here’s more from Bucknell’s Matt O’Reilly, who recaps the rest of the Bison’s trip to Belgium as well as their moving experience in Normandy...


Matt O’Reilly

NORMANDY — What’s good people? Have a lot to update you about since my last post! Since I last wrote anything, we have played a game, traveled to two different capital cities, stayed in an amazing 5-star resort and toured the beaches of Normandy — an experience that trumps everything I’ve seen in my life. Bare with me because this one might be a little longer than the previous two, but if you were there to see all that we have in the last few days, then you’d understand why!

Our first stop, which I touched on earlier, was Ghent, Belgium. As I told you before, we had a walking tour of the city and it was eye opening. The architecture and the vibe within the city were very different than anything that I had experienced before, and its cleanliness and simplicity made it fun to explore once we had some free time. The city and the country as a whole is known for its beauty, but also for its beers! Being 21, I felt that was something I needed to confirm for myself! Safe to say that I was not disappointed.

Matt O’Reilly

On our second day in Belgium, we traveled to another capital city, Bruges. Bruges was entirely different than Ghent. Its architecture was very medieval and there seemed to be more of a deep-rooted history, or at least that is what our tour-guide alluded to. Bruges was full of people when we visited, which was surprising considering we visited on what we were told was the hottest day recorded since 1976, or something crazy like that! It was smoldering hot, but that didn’t stop us or thousands of other people from roaming the brick streets. What was the most memorable to me about Bruges was the town square, which was lined with high-end restaurants and a towering church/clock tower. It was impacted with people and surrounded by a variety of different shops, making for a fun environment.

After our tour of Bruges, we returned to Ghent to play a game against the Ghent Hawks, a Belgian Second League team, full of men 10-15 years older than our players. Unlike the last game, jet lag did nothing to slow us down from the start. We started the game shooting 58 percent from three-point land in the first half and took a 20-point lead going into the break. Despite this fast start, the Hawks were tough and ran their offense well, getting it back to 10 before we broke it open again and ultimately brought home a 20-point dub! The game was exciting to watch, but lack of air-conditioning in a gym in the middle of a heat wave made for some sweaty guys on the sideline and it’s safe to say water was a commodity. Rehydration was a key for us for the rest of our time in Belgium!

Next we traveled to Deauville, France a very high-end area in which we stayed in an amazing resort with gorgeous views, a pool and other awesome amenities. When we went downtown that night, we hit our first language barrier. In both Amsterdam and the two Belgian cities, most individuals spoke a number of languages, English being one of them. In France, most people spoke no English, making communication difficult. This didn’t inhibit us in any way though, as walking around a town with beautiful beaches and amazing cars like Rolls Royces and Ashton Martins can never be too hard.

The most amazing experience to date for many of us, and questionably the most eye-opening experience of my life was our visit to Pointe Du Hoc, Omaha Beach of Normandy and the American Cemetery in Normandy. As someone who is majoring in History, this tour was the peak of all tours. It is simple to see numbers, speaking to the tens of thousands of soldiers who died in Normandy, or the 3,000+ casualties within the first couple of hours of arriving, but it isn’t until you submerge yourself in the environment in which these people lived and fought that you can even begin to comprehend the magnitude of those numbers. Pointe Du Hoc was a bunker on a cliff in which the Germans had initially held many of their canons. Seeing these bunkers and the steep cliffs made it even more unbelievable how the Army Rangers managed to scale them and ultimately defeat the Germans, taking over Pointe Du Hoc and pushing them back. Witnessing this place and the ridiculous rigors that if provided for the Rangers made me respect their actions all the more, and it gives me greater perspective on statistics, like how only 90 of the 200+ Rangers survived the attack.

Matt O’Reilly

Having seen Hollywood portrayals of D-Day, like Saving Private Ryan and Dunkirk, I thought I had a relatively good idea of what was to lie ahead when we traveled to Omaha Beach. While these two movies do a good job of giving insight into the horrors of that sad but equally amazing and honorable day, stepping foot on the beach and scanning the horizon brought stronger emotions than I thought it could. Seeing this beautiful, expansive beach, surrounded by beautiful hills, and understanding that these characteristics make it so amazing, yet so deadly, is mind-boggling. This beach is 100-150 yards from the water to the hillside, and to think that 30,000 individuals dropped at once and had to make a full sprint with heavy gear towards the hillsides lined with German soldiers protected by bunkers with powerful weaponry is such a frightening thought. These individuals and the United States military knew what they were getting into and what would likely be lost, but they went through with it for the sake of freedom. Seeing one of the beaches in which 3,000+ people died over the course of several hours, some before even reaching the hillside or even the sand was touching and life-changing.

To end our tour of Normandy, we went to the American Cemetery. The cemetery is the most pristine place that I have ever seen before or will ever see again. Those who work the grounds do an amazing job of making sure that this ever-so-important place is kept up perfectly, and the fact that every single grave is perfectly in line with the rest, and that they all face the United States is even more magnificent. The visit to the cemetery brought everything that I had learned, and now seen, together for me as well as the rest of my teammates. Witnessing a seemingly never-ending cemetery that expands as far as this one, containing 10,000+ graves, puts into perspective the magnitude of this war and more importantly the sacrifice that these people made for freedom across the world. While it was extremely touching to see the names of those who passed away on the tombstones, it was even more difficult to see the tombstones that were dedicated to those who cannot be identified or were lost in war. To think that many individuals sacrificed their lives for me and will never be able to be identified or buried with their name attached to their body is a thought that will haunt me forever. Not only will it haunt me, but it will ensure that I will make a much better effort in my own life to never take the freedom that I have for granted.

The last few days have been some of the most amazing and life-altering days in my life, and I know that many others on our team feel the same way. To close, I want to give a sincere thanks to all who fight, have fought, or have given their lives for the freedom that I as well as my teammates enjoy every second of every day. Specifically, I want to give thanks to my own Grandpa, Donald Shirkey, a retired member of the Navy. I also want to thank the rest of my teammates’ family members who have sacrificed so much for us to be able to be here, experiencing what we are right now. God Bless our Troops!