The freshly broken dawn of Pueblo, Colo., belies the weather on the way. The sparkling sun will be gone within hours. A winter storm promises to bring 20 inches of snow to the mountains. Wind, rain and cold are promised for the plains.
The Colorado State-Pueblo softball team is bound for the flatlands, and everybody boarding the bus knows the weekend will be built around two tasks: beating Chadron State and beating the weather.
Chadron, Neb., is 412 miles and about eight hours away. For most teams, it would be the longest drive of the year, but as Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference trips go, this one on April 13 is nothing special.
In the RMAC, the trips can be short (five miles), but they are mostly long (up to 1,130 miles). They can be mountainous or flat. They can feature aspen-filled vistas or endless, barren desert. Snow, rain, drought, fire, ice, wind – it’s all possible on the road in the RMAC, the NCAA’s undisputed king of ground travel.
Challenges abound with academics, safety and preparedness. Failure to deal with one aspect could lead to a bad experience; failure to deal with all ensures a road-trip disaster.
But in the main, the trips are a usually only tedious and tiring – and largely treasured. As one administrator said, bus trips can be the best of all worlds for student-athletes: They have the opportunity to spend quality time with their best friends while playing the game they love.
But whether they represent an important bond or are simply a mundane reality, bus journeys constitute a large part of the student-athlete experience for thousands of young people every year.
And like many teams, the Colorado State-Pueblo ThunderWolves know how to make the most of their time together.
The bus is to leave at 7, but the players are all in the Massari Arena parking lot by 6:45. “You need to know that when I say be there at 7, it really means be there at 6:45,” says coach Shane Showalter, a former minor-league second baseman.
The bus – a 40-passenger GMC people mover – rolls into the parking lot, and the bleary-eyed players emerge from their parked cars. At the moment, the ThunderWolves are atop the 14-team RMAC, although the lead is uneasy. Three players, including a top pitcher, are out for the season with injuries. Only 15 able-bodied players are available.
The players and coaches waste no time loading themselves and their cargo. The bus goes from empty to full in about seven minutes. At 6:53, it is rolling out of the campus and the players are already buzzing about an altered schedule, a common RMAC means of dealing with bad weather.
“There’s talk with this trip about trying to fit three games in on Saturday because the weather’s going to be so bad on Sunday,” says second baseman Mckenzie Joseph, her broken arm supported by a sling. “And that really will take a toll on our pitchers. But really, it’s just kind of ‘whatever.’ We’re there and we’ll play as much as we can and head home.”
Under RMAC policy, Chadron State could have shifted the weekend’s games – Saturday and Sunday doubleheaders -- forward one day. But Chadron State coach Rob Stack has chosen to stick with the original schedule. That could mean two on Saturday and two on Sunday – or three on Saturday and see-what-happens on Sunday. Similar weather-related schedule adjustments happen all the time in the RMAC.
The trip to Chadron has barely begun before it’s time for breakfast. The choice is a familiar Chick-fil-A 40 miles up the road in Colorado Springs.
“This is Reagan’s favorite place,” Showalter jokes of outfielder Reagan Best, an outspoken Chick-fil-A critic. “We’re going to eat every meal on this trip at Chick-fil-A.”
But the appeal of Chick-fil-A becomes apparent when the team is back on the road after only 14 minutes. “Chick-fil-A is on it!” assistant coach Stephanie Hughes says. “They should make us a sponsor,” says a player.
At 8:07 a.m., the first movie of the day – “Despicable Me” – begins. While several players do take in the movie, the textbooks come open at several seats. Shortstop Samantha Rios, a health promotion and wellness major, is feeling the pressure of finals three weeks away.
“I have six classes, so that’s a lot of studying and homework to do,” she says as the bus rolls through Colorado Springs.
Joseph also plans to read, but she says the bus has its limits as a study environment. She needs to work through about 100 pages on this trip, which she might be able to do on the way. But if she needs to write for her mass communications course, she will wait until she’s in her room where things are quieter.
Pitcher Justine Bosio acknowledges that the road is not necessarily the best place for academics. The trick, she says, is to get the work done at home.
“If you’re organized and know when your assignments are due and you don’t procrastinate, then playing sports and going to school really isn’t that hard,” she says. “But when you put things off and think, oh, I’ll do it later, then that’s when you stress yourself out.”
Faculty members occasionally resent athletics travel when it leads to missed classes, but Bosio says her relationship with faculty has been good.
“I’ve had only one professor who wasn’t OK with me missing class,” she says. “You just have to talk to them and say it’s not like we have a choice. We’re not missing your class on purpose.”
To show good faith, Showalter demands that the athletes not only be on time but that they sit at the front of the class.
“We walk in there every other day,” Bosio says. “We all sit on the first three rows. I’ll be attentive. I’ll participate. And if you just go in and talk to (the professors) in that sense, they’ll come around.”
The bus motors through Denver and its endless suburbs. The mountains eventually disappear. The chatter diminishes and sleep takes over.
By 10:05., it’s time for a restroom break in Fort Morgan, Colo. “We don’t have to stop as often as you might think,” Showalter says. “We have a couple of kids with small bladders, but I’m probably the worst.”
From there, it’s a short hop to lunch a couple of hours later in Bridgeport, Neb. The bus stops at the lightly trafficked local Subway.
“They’re going to have a heart attack,” Showalter says. “They may run out of bread,” assistant coach Stephanie Hughes says. Neither happens as the helpful staff of two speedily fills 23 orders. “We’ve been to some Subways where there was only one person,” Showalter says. “Their eyes got really huge.”
After about a half hour, the bus is back on the road. The breakfast, restroom and lunch breaks combined have taken 58 minutes. The ThunderWolves are an efficient bunch.
The western Nebraska scenery is a vast expanse of semi-arid bluffs. The topography turns beautiful about 20 miles south of Chadron when pine trees suddenly cover the hills. Rain showers are visible to the north and west.
At 2:40 p.m., the bus rolls into the Best Western of Chadron. The time in transit has been 7 hours, 47 minutes.
Showalter tells the team to be on the bus to go to dinner at 6 p.m. The magazine writer shows up at 5:58 to a fully loaded bus, having forgotten that 6 o’clock means 5:45.
“Just go downtown and we’ll see what’s there,” Showalter tells driver James Sullinger. After a quick trip up and down Main Street, the choice is Angela’s Eatery, a Mexican restaurant.
Angela’s is one of the most popular places in Chadron, but Showalter grimaces when he sees the order of choice for several players: nachos piled to the sky and generously covered in processed cheese. His discomfort is increased minutes later when he receives a text from Chadron State coach Stack. The Saturday tripleheader will be necessary because of the approaching weather.
Showalter and Hughes keep the news of the tripleheader to themselves until the team is on the bus.
“Listen up,” Showalter says after they’ve boarded. “We’re playing three tomorrow. It is what it is. Do what you’re supposed to do. Make these games fast and don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”
The curfew is 10 p.m., and the pre-tripleheader breakfast is set for 7:30 at the adjoining Country Kitchen.
Showalter reminds the players they’re playing three on this day and to keep their breakfast light. But Country Kitchen doesn’t do light. The butter on the pancakes is administered with three twists of an ice cream scoop. Clearly, the road presents special challenges with diet.
The crosstown ride to Chadron State takes about five minutes. The games were to begin at 11 a.m., but Showalter and Stack agree they need every available minute to finish three games before dark. The first pitch is thrown at 10:42 a.m. A light rain falls intermittently, the wind blows, the temperature falls, and the number of fans in the stands at the start of the day is exactly 0.
The ThunderWolves drop 10 runs on Chadron State in the top of the first. The pitchers can’t get the mud out of their cleats, and the first half inning takes 38 minutes. With the pitching depleted for both teams, the opening foreshadows the rest of the day. The ThunderWolves win Game 1, 10-2; lose Game 2, 15-7; and, in a finale with more twists than a James Patterson novel, win a 2-hour, 29-minute marathon, 16-12, when reserve outfielder Sidney Bailey – hitting below .200 going in – crashes a go-ahead grand slam in the top of the sixth on her way to a 2-for-2, six RBI day.
As the final out is recorded on the eight-hour, 62-run experience, nighttime and a steady rain have begun to fall. During the night, a 50 mph wind awakens guests at the Best Western. By Sunday morning, the rain continues. The temperature is 40, and the wind chill is 20. There will be no fourth game on this day.
Showalter tells the team to be on the bus by 8:45 a.m. for the trip back. “Coach,” asks one player, “does that mean 8:45 or 8:30?”
As the team heads south, there’s a quick discussion about possible movies. Showalter thumbs through the remaining choices and says, “There’s some of these I wouldn’t be comfortable watching with you all.”
Lunch again is a Subway, this time on I-80 on the Nebraska-Wyoming border. The service is a bit slow, the weather is still miserable and players are tired from the previous day’s tripleheader. None of that matters. The ThunderWolves are in a good mood.
The banter is loud enough that Showalter has to speak loudly to make himself heard at the front of the line.
“Hey, Sid!” he shouts to the star of Game 3. “Did you order the hero sandwich?”
At the Subway checkout, the clerk tells Showalter, “Those kids were super nice. I don’t think we’ve ever had a group that good.”
Hughes tells the coach to pass the accolade on to the team. “You guys are great,” he says as the bus heads toward home. “We know,” responds a voice from the back.
As the team nears Denver, the first blue sky emerges. By Colorado Springs, the clouds are gone and about 4 inches of new snow covers the ground.
A stray “Are we there yet?” is heard as the team motors toward Pueblo.
At 5:20 p.m., the bus rolls to a stop, the bags are unpacked and the players disperse almost instantly. Another successful trip is in the books.
The game, of course, is what makes the trip work.
Without the softball, the experience would be only a small step short of crazy. Rising before dawn, traveling eight hours to a tiny town in northwest Nebraska, being exposed to rain and cold, and then coming right back – none of that makes any sense without the softball itself. But the games and the camaraderie turn it into something of an adventure.
Veterans of RMAC travel say the threshold for boredom falls somewhere around the eight-hour mark. Anything beyond that likely means a more arduous experience. That means that personnel at more remote schools need to simply accept the inherent difficulty of their location.
“Traveling’s brutal,” said Western New Mexico Assistant AD Brian Kortz. “There’s no getting around it.”
Whatever the situation, the bus experience dispels the notion that all student-athletes are pampered. For most, like these from Colorado State-Pueblo, there are no fancy hotels or other high-end affectations. But most are able to make their own fun, usually in constructive ways. And as time passes, they often have fond memories of their journeys.
“Student-athletes report back that some of their best experiences happen on those bus trips,” Regis (Colo.) AD Ann Martin said. “Teams that don’t have a bus trip until mid or late season, they don’t have the same chemistry as teams that have taken those bigger trips.”
Chadron State AD Brad Smith said he has heard virtually no complaints about travel during his long tenure, even though his school sits on the northeastern edge of the RMAC and each roundtrip averages more than 1,000 miles.
“The student-athletes realize everybody else is going through this and these other kids sell them on the fact that this is the way life is. If you want to play, this is what you’ve got to do,” he said.
“In the 25 years I’ve been here, I haven’t heard but probably five or six athletes complain about the travel.”
In fact, it’s possible that the much-maligned bus trip is really one of the perks of being a college athlete.
After the Chadron State trip in mid-April, the injuries caught up with Colorado State-Pueblo’s softball team. The ThunderWolves lost a doubleheader at Adams State the following Wednesday (the RMAC allows midweek games only with travel partners). A series split at home against second-division Western New Mexico left them 1.5 games behind Colorado Mines in the final standings. After two quick losses in the RMAC tournament, the season was over.
The finish was a disappointment, but the sting will pass, to be replaced with more lasting stuff.
“We’re all really, really close as a team,” infielder Holly Hansing said, “so it’s fun to travel together. You just have to be like a family.”
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.