Traveling for road games is a fact of life. No team gets to play all of its games at home. Of course, some have it rougher than others. And for some, the burden can seem downright untenable.
In areas with a dense population, playing away from home can sometimes be a nuisance. But in more sparsely populated areas, it’s not uncommon for teams to have two-hour bus trips – or more – for league games, let alone filling out a schedule with nonleague matchups.
Since all teams have to play weeknight games, that often means buses aren’t getting back from road games until after 11 p.m. – and even later if weather plays a factor. Add in travel time for parent pick-up from school and athletes aren’t hitting the pillow until the wee hours of the morning on a school night.
The Spokesman-Review covers six leagues in Eastern Washington and five in North Idaho, representing over 70 schools.
All of the Greater Spokane League schools are in the immediate vicinity to the S-R offices. Despite the occasional complaint, travel between GSL schools isn’t too difficult.
The longest trip mileage-wise among GSL members is Mead to Central Valley, 18.2 miles. Traffic can complicate matters on occasion, but it’s not an unduly cumbersome trip.
When the valley schools are scheduled for football games at Joe Albi Stadium in northwest Spokane it can effect the attendance for fans that don’t want to make the typically 45-minute-plus drive.
East Valley and West Valley have it more difficult. They play in the Great Northern League against Cheney (29 miles), Pullman (89 miles) and Clarkston (120 miles). Each team plays home-and-home games in the five-team league.
In the Northeast A League, the longest trip is between Freeman and Colville, 88.5 miles.
It’s not just this part of the state though. Recently it was reported that Tenino was turned down by the WIAA in a request to drop from Class 1A to 2B, citing travel time to league opponents, including an eight-hour roundtrip to league opponent Forks. The WIAA held that classifications for the state would solely be determined by school population and not by the travel distances between schools.
The longest road
Asotin, in farthest southeast Washington, plays in the South Division of the Northeast 2B League. Asotin is 112 miles from Spokane, but its division rivals include Spokane-area schools Reardan (132 miles) and Liberty (96 miles) – home-and-home series those teams have to make every sport, every season.
The longest road trip for basketball in Eastern Washington this season belonged to the Asotin girls team, which traveled to Kettle Falls for a game on Jan. 13 – a whopping 192 miles.
For point of reference, it’s 192 miles from Spokane to Yakima and 197 to Missoula.
Asotin also traveled to Springdale (Mary Walker HS, 151 miles) and Colbert (Northwest Christian, 128 miles) for crossover games with the North Division.
Other outlying schools have it just as bad.
Selkirk, in Ione, plays in the North Division of the Northeast 1B League and is the farthest school in the region to the northeast. It hosted Odessa of the South Division of the league, a trip of 167 miles.
In the Southeast 1B League, Oakesdale to Touchet is 134 miles on winding roads.
Idaho schools are forced with travel challenges on a daily basis. The three Class 5A schools in Coeur d’Alene all have to make the long trip to Inland Empire League opponent Lewiston (120 miles), while 4A schools Lakeland (in Rathdrum) and Sandpoint have to go to in-league Moscow, up to 152 miles away.
In 3A, Kellogg is the most outlying school, requiring long drives to face Timberlake (Spirit Lake, 60 miles), Priest River (92 miles), and Bonners Ferry (113 miles).
Building a schedule
The Priest River girls traveled 122 miles to Republic for an out-of-state, nonleague game on Jan. 19. The teams’ records were a combined 4-29.
The highway portion of the trip isn’t so bad regardless of the weather, but it can be a difficult trip north of Colville on state Route 20 on the Sherman Pass Scenic Byway.
“Our buses have chains and our drivers know how to use them,” Priest River athletic director Matt George said.
He described the challenge of scheduling games late in the season. The bigger schools in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene aren’t an option matchupwise, so he has to look west into the country schools in Washington or east into Montana.
The closest schools to Priest River are Deer Park and Newport from the Northeast A League. “Newport and those guys, they just don’t have any nonleague openings because their league is so big and the schedule is so tight,” George said.
The Republic trip was a new one for them this season.
“It’s a good matchup for us, number one,” George said about the uncommon foe. “We were hoping to get JV games out of it but they didn’t have JV. That would have made the trip a little better for us.”
The Spartans edged Republic 34-32 to earn their third win of the season. Regardless of the outcome, George would have considered the trip successful.
“We kind of looked at it as a win-win. If we lose we know we competed well from (a talent-level) standpoint.”
St. George’s athletic director and boys basketball coach Ryan Peplinksi described how leagues take into account travel time against potential missed class time.
“As ADs in our league, we kind of have an idea of how to minimize travel on weekdays to minimize out-of-school time. You try to pick your closest opponents and try to schedule them during the week, if you can. Longer trips on Saturdays. Once in a while you have to hit a Friday for those long trips.”
The burden of travel is bad enough even if everything goes to plan. When things go sideways though for any number of reasons, it can either be a team-building opportunity – or a recipe for disaster.
“The small school coaches (1B and 2B) have hundreds of these stories!” said Eric Nikkola, athletic director at Reardan. “We have been stuck in a bus at the top of Snoqualmie while they were doing avalanche control. We have had buses break down between Ione and Metaline with no cell coverage – sat there for hours!
“One time, one of our buses hit a wild turkey as it flew across US-195 on our way to Pullman and shattered the whole front window on the passenger side.”
Of course, some travel disasters are self-instigated.
“Probably the biggest nightmare,” Nikkola offered, “was riding home from Selkirk after a game and (a postgame) chili feed. It was the middle of winter and most of the windows were wide open halfway home.”
Weather is always a concern during basketball season, as Reardan experienced first-hand earlier this season. On Dec. 15, a 61-mile trip to Tekoa which should take roughly 90 minutes took almost three hours. Then the bus took a wrong turn at the elementary school and got stuck on a hill.
Boys coach Brian Graham got out and surveyed the situation.
“I jogged a block or so to a restaurant to get help and get directions to the high school,” he said. “A waitress helped and even called over to the school to give them a heads up.”
Stuck and late, they walked through 6 inches of snow to the school, slipping and sliding the whole way.
Fortunately, no injuries were reported from the trek. The teams made it to the school just at the scheduled start of the girls game, pushing everything back, and the ride home was as slippery as the one getting there. The bus got back to Reardan at 12:45 a.m.
it was a Friday so there was no school the next day, but the teams hosted Asotin in a doubleheader anyway on Saturday. No rest for the weary.
St. George’s girls coach Mark Rickard has been involved in high school sports for 35 years. “I probably have made, I don’t know, a thousand (bus trips), over the course of my life. Four-digit territory at this point.”
He tells a story of how one trip he was forced to be human windshield wiper.
“We went to Yakima for an overnight trip on a charter bus,” he explained. “Over the pass it was bad weather – stormy, snowy, cold. And, of course, the defrost and the windshield wipers stopped working on the charter bus.
“I was in the front seat and about every five minutes the driver would give me the cue and I was wiping down the front window.”
Mead AD John Barrington recalled a time several years ago when the Panthers’ softball team traveled to Tacoma on a Thursday for the state softball tournament, but forgot something very important – the equipment bag.
“No helmets, no bats, balls, catcher’s equipment, nothing,” Barrington said.
He scrambled. He found parents that hadn’t left Spokane yet and were going over later that day that were happy to stop by the school, pick up the gear and deliver before the start of play on Friday.
“Around 11:30 p.m.,” Barrington said, “my phone rang. I was excited that they must be in the parking lot.”
No such luck – the parents’ RV had broken down in Ellensburg. Barrington and an assistant jumped in a car and set off for Ellensburg from Tacoma around midnight.
“We got back just in time to jump in the shower, get ready, get our girls up and head to the fields,” Barrington said.
On the bus
Travel time is just part of a long day for road games.
These athletes are high school students first, and lengthy road trips often come after a full day of classes. A student-athlete can spend as much or more time on the round trip to an away regular season game as they do in class for the day.
And don’t forget about the playoffs, where teams have to travel to the Tri-Cities, or the Seattle-Tacoma area, sometimes going over on back-to-back weekends if they advance.
In Idaho, the postseason can be even worse, with state playoff games potentially in the Boise or Idaho Falls area.
If an athlete plays multiple sports, as many do, the hours can add up to ridiculous amounts over a school year.
St. George’s School, which plays in the North Division of the Northeast 2B, is located in north Spokane. Both boys and girls basketball teams are playing well this season – the boys are rated No. 1 in 2B by the WIAA’s system, the girls No. 4.
The Dragons’ road trip to Kettle Falls on Tuesday was moderate for the region – 77 miles. On Tuesday Clarkston came up to West Valley (114 miles) and in Idaho, Lake City went down to Lewiston, a 144-mile roundtrip.
The school day started at 8:20 a.m., and most of the students lifted or worked out before class.
The varsity players were out of school at 2:45 p.m. for a scheduled departure at 3 p.m., with the JV team leaving at 2:15. When the weather is clear, as it was on Tuesday, it’s a 1 hour, 45 minute bus ride.
Regardless the length of the trip, cellphones make the drive time much easier than “the old days.”
“We’ll either be talking or if it’s a little quieter we might plug in some music,” St. George’s senior Cade Peplinksi explained of his routine on the bus. “Lately we’ve been playing a game on our phone where we can all hook up and be on the same team, called Rules of Survival. We might play a couple rounds of that and then just talk.
“The conversation usually dies off, and everyone gets focused as we get closer to the destination.”
Fellow senior Noah Halliburton-Link tries to sleep in a bit later on away game days and goes out of his way to eat breakfast, something he might pass on otherwise. He’ll participate in the game on his phone with the others, but then he likes to get into game-mode.
“I’m headphones-in and either taking a nap or just getting ready for the game,” he said.
“I’m kind of all about getting ready mentally for stuff so that headphone time getting ready is pretty important.”
Halliburton-Link said long bus rides make it tough to get the adrenaline pumping again once they get into the gym.
“It definitely takes some time,” he explained. “Getting moving again after a long bus ride, getting a good stretch, getting ready for the game.”
Even after the bus ride, there’s still more waiting. Unlike the bigger schools, which often have an auxiliary gym for the JVs to play, most small schools have one court. So the JVs play earlier, then the girls at 5:45 p.m. and finally the boys at 7:30.
The teams loaded the buses for the return trip at 9:15 and pulled into the parking lot at St. George’s right at 11, for awaiting parents that didn’t make the trip for the game.
All in a day’s work.
The writer commutes 38.2 miles from Hayden Lake to downtown Spokane five days a week.
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