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Winter storm strands WSU fans, players in El Paso

EL PASO, Texas – Winning the Sun Bowl was the easy part for hundreds of Washington State University football players and fans.

Caught by a freak winter storm that dropped up to 8 inches of snow in west Texas and New Mexico, many woke up Sunday morning to find their travel plans in tatters.

Those who flew faced cancellations or delays at El Paso International Airport, where dozens of flights were affected. Those who drove confronted the prospect of icy roads throughout the region.

At the Marriott Hotel near the airport, dozens of Cougar fans plotted their strategy. The mood was lighthearted, aided by WSU’s 20-14 win over Miami; it was the school’s first bowl win in 12 years.

Outside, Lindsey Andrus – the sister of head coach Mike Leach – was contemplating a 15-hour drive back to her home near Salt Lake City. “It’ll be slow and sloppy,” said Andrus, who said bad weather is “just part of the football experience.”

Nearby, freshman football players Andre Dillard and Isiaiah Davis were digesting the latest news: Their flight to Seattle, originally scheduled for 7 a.m. but later moved to 9:30 a.m., had been delayed again – by 11 hours.

Like many players, Dillard and Davis opted to travel home for the remainder of the holidays instead of taking the team charter flight back to Pullman. That flight returned to the Inland Northwest early Sunday, with the band set to follow later in the day.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” said Dillard, from Tacoma.

John Winkler, a WSU alum from Tacoma, also played the wait-and-see game. He and a friend were supposed to catch a 1 p.m. flight on Sunday, but were making contingency plans in case their flight – like so many others – was canceled or delayed.

Others couldn’t afford to wait. In the Marriott lobby, backup quarterback Peyton Bender – a Florida native – had just called an audible: With his flight to Miami canceled, he decided to drive 10 hours to Houston and catch a flight from there.

The weather did nothing to dampen Bender’s enthusiasm. “It was an awesome week for everyone,” he said. “Everyone had a great time.

“But I just want to get home,” Bender said.

So did Charles Chandler, a fan who drove from Montana and already conquered adversity on the way down when a 20-vehicle pileup in Colorado forced a detour.

The main reason for driving: One of the passengers is his mother-in-law, who also happens to be Leach’s mother-in-law. “She just doesn’t want to fly,” Chandler said.

Travelers weren’t the only ones affected in this desert town that seldom sees snow. Almost 2,000 El Paso residents lost power, while churches, shopping malls and other businesses closed unexpectedly.

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