Travel can be exciting and invigorating. It can also drive high school basketball teams--and their coaches--crazy.
St. Mary's Ryken boys basketball coach J.P. Jones says he has learned to handle the long bus rides to games with 12 or so anxious teenagers. But there was one instance, when he was the head coach at Coupeville High School in Washington state about six years ago, in which Jones lost it. His team, 18-0 going into the game, lost to an 0-18 team. Badly.
"It is the only time in my career I've told a team that I didn't want to hear not even a single word on the bus ride home from a game," Jones said, laughing. "I still like silence in the locker room before a game, but I've learned to put it all in perspective . . . as long as they keep [bus activities] controlled."
Upsets such as the one Jones's Coupeville team suffered are one reason coaches fear long road trips--it's easy for a team to lose its focus on the way to a distant gym. In the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference, where 12 schools are scattered over three sizable counties and teams sometimes face hour-and-a-half bus rides to the games, it's even easier.
Teams also have to fight boredom and the cold on a long trip. And, on weeknights, the players know another day of classes starts early the next morning.
"I guess we just get used to it after a while," Patuxent senior guard Eric Gross said. "But that doesn't make [long trips] any easier. The main thing is not only being able to maintain focus on the road, but making sure that you play at a consistent level no matter where you are."
Every player has a plan to pass the time on the long and sometimes bumpy or cold bus rides across Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties. They sleep. Read. Listen to music. Do homework. Talk basketball. Gossip. Sing. If they're sneaky enough, they can eat.
"We're not supposed to eat on the bus," said Randy Starks, Westlake's 6-foot-5, 260-pound junior forward. "But a man gets hungry sometimes. Those are some long trips."
For some schools, long road trips are more common than others. All five of the Charles County schools--Lackey, La Plata, McDonough, Thomas Stone and Westlake--are located fairly close to one another. The longest drive is between Thomas Stone and Lackey, about 25 miles. For them, it's only the out-of-county trips that are substantial.
But at Patuxent in Calvert County, a trip to Lackey takes nearly 85 minutes on a bus. And even an in-county trip to Northern has the team on the bus for 40 or more minutes.
And Great Mills? The Hornets have the area's southernmost school, and they face lengthy trips to Northern, Westlake and Lackey. Every SMAC basketball team has to go on the road about 10 times a season.
Great Mills "is definitely the farthest school out, but they don't have the worst road trips," said Chad Maloney, a senior at Leonardtown private school St. Mary's Ryken. "We've got guys on our team who drive [long distances] to Ryken for school. So after we get back from a long road trip, like to Northern, [junior guard Ronald Taylor] has to turn right around and drive back up to Prince George's County just to get home."
For most teams, the ride to games is fairly quiet. Though players differ over whether taking a short nap will hurt or help their game, it seems to be a consensus that players begin to concentrate on their individual responsibilities for the upcoming game while on the bus.
The trips home are trickier. Sometimes, following a win, of course, they are the most fun. Victory can turn basketball players into self-styled singing sensations, and coaches often have to listen to the entire team take up a tune.
After losses, however, many coaches demand a silent ride home--ostensibly so that players can think about the game. It makes the trips even longer.
"I don't think we're ever really silent," Thomas Stone senior forward Jewel Clark said. "But when we lose, we do keep our focus on basketball, talk about what went wrong in the game and what we can do in practice to fix it.
"When we win, that's when we get a little crazy. It's fun just spending time with your teammates--but we all get along. I guess if a team didn't get along they'd have to learn how to on those long trips, either that or it could be traumatizing. . . . Especially down here. Nobody takes trips like we do in the SMAC."
Hit the Road, SMAC
Every high school basketball team faces its share of cold and bumpy bus rides during the season. But in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference, where 12 schools are scattered across three sizable counties, long, cold and bumpy bus rides are often the norm.
Whether traveling from Great Mills to Lackey or from Northern to St. Mary's Ryken, coaches and players face the same challenges. Some days, it's difficult to maintain focus on the upcoming game. Other times, players worry about doing their homework and making it back to school on time the next day. Occasionally, after a win, coaches are stuck listening to their players crooning the latest pop hits.
But the best teams find a way to deal with these obstacles. They know that if they're going to win the SMAC, they're going to have to win on the road.
On the Road Again
Some of the longer trips in the SMAC
From To Miles
Great Mills Lackey 55
Lackey Patuxent 52
Patuxent McDonough 46
Northern St. Mary's Ryken 45
SOURCE: Yahoo! Maps