Beyond Box Scores: The trip that wouldn't end
By Phil Perry
Road trips are part of athletics. We all know that coming in. Some are better than others – in my two and a half seasons working with the UNCG women’s basketball team, we’ve gone to Anaheim, Calif., New York City and Miami, Fla. We spent a day at Disneyland, saw “West Side Story” on Broadway and took our talents to South Beach for Thanksgiving.
Those were outstanding trips, and we all made memories that will last a lifetime.
But there are two sides to every coin. Every team, every coach, every athletic trainer, every SID has a few nightmare road trips in his or her memory banks, too. Well, add another one to the list. UNCG’s women’s basketball team is going to have night terrors about its latest one for a while.
The annual trip to Chattanooga and Samford is already the longest and most grueling road swing in the league, and nothing else is even close. And the Southern Conference isn’t quite as flush with the cash as, say, the ACC or Big East, so there are no chartered planes or even commercial flights for the routine league schedule. We flew to all those idyllic far-flung destinations, sure, but when the early portion of the schedule is over and we’re into league play, we’re piling into a bus the rest of the way.
Toss in that Chattanooga is the 11-time defending regular-season SoCon champ and Samford finished second in each of its first two seasons in the league – and is the preseason pick to win the league this year – and you’re also looking at the strong likelihood of being rewarded with a pair of losses for your 17-plus hours on the bus.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that no one really looks forward to seeing Chattanooga and Samford on the schedule for multiple reasons.
For the 23 UNCG individuals involved with the recently (and mercifully) completed trip, add one more. Fifteen student-athletes, four coaches, a manager, an athletic trainer, an SID and our incredible bus driver, John, just had one of those nightmare trips.
Head coach Lynne Agee, in her 30th season at UNCG, and associate head coach Carol Peschel, who is in her 27th, struggled to come up with many trips as bad as this one during their UNCG tenures. All of the ones they came up with were plagued by wintry weather.
There was the trip to Ohio in December 1993 in which the snow started to fall while UNCG was absorbing one of the worst losses in school history – a 51-point setback at Kent State. On the way to its next opponent, Dayton, the driving conditions were so bad that the team had to pull over in Mansfield, Ohio, breaking up a mere 3-hour trip to stay in a Super 8 for the night.
There was the Big South Championship the season before that that saw a nine-day delay between the semifinals and championship game because Radford’s Dedmon Center pulled its best Metrodome impression, the roof collapsing from the weight of the snow. The Spartans were at least able to return to Greensboro while the building was repaired, but it’s hard to keep the momentum of a tournament run going when the rounds are more than a week apart.
And then there was a year early in Agee’s tenure – she doesn’t remember specifically which one but knows it was late in the Division III days – in which a return from Dixie Conference opponent Christopher Newport in Newport News, Va., was cut short by icy conditions. Back in those days, buses would have been a luxury – instead, Agee herself was driving one of the two vans the team used to get back and forth. After coming just inches from skidding into a disabled truck on an icy bridge, Agee decided she had seen enough and pulled over in Emporia, Va., for the night.
And now there’s this one.
Here’s the final tally. We left UNCG’s campus at 9:30 a.m. Friday. We returned 5:30 p.m Wednesday. What was supposed to be a four-day trip that saw us get back to campus just before 11 p.m. Monday turned into a nearly weeklong endeavor. We stayed in four different hotels. Drove through five states. Spent about 23 hours on the bus. And on top of that, the Spartans did drop both games.
The Chattanooga portion of the trip went pretty much according to plan. No travel delays, no weather problems whatsoever. The real fun began Sunday after getting to Birmingham.
We had practice that night at Samford’s arena. The weather was clear when we started but by the time we were finished, it had started to snow. Samford’s campus is chock full of hills, and the arena sits at the bottom of one of them. After four or five tries on the road behind the arena, it was obvious the bus wasn’t going back out the way it came in.
Assistant coach KaLeah Latham called a member of Samford’s staff to tell them what was going on and ask if there were another way out. There was – a gravel road behind the baseball stadium that empties into a small neighborhood – but it was blocked by a locked gate. The Samford staff called campus security, which then came out to investigate.
The two guys from campus security walked the road with John to make sure the bus could pass. The three of them decided it could, and the campus security guys went back to their base to get the key to the gate. Close to an hour after practice ended, the bus was on the move.
The roads were bad by then, and it was determined that we couldn’t make it back to our hotel, a good 15 minutes away. The bus was already slipping and sliding a bit, and Birmingham as a whole had packed it in for the night. We found the nearest hotel we could and were lucky they had room for us.
All of our luggage was back at the other hotel. The student-athletes were still wearing their sweaty practice gear. Oh, and it was now after 9 p.m. and no one had eaten dinner. There wasn’t an open restaurant in sight, but the Wal-Mart nearby was still open. So, the staff went there and picked up frozen dinners and a few other essentials as we prepared to bunker down for what could have been days, for all we knew.
It was fairly obvious by this point that we weren’t playing at the scheduled noon the following day, if it all on Monday. The next morning confirmed that, and the game was delayed until Tuesday.
Meanwhile, we were still at our new hotel, with no change of clothes, toiletries … anything other than what we took to practice. Luckily, the roads had improved to the point that the hotel’s shuttle service was running, but the bus still wasn’t going anywhere.
Four or five shuttle runs later, we were all back at our original hotel – a circumstance made necessary by the lack of food near the other one. Even the Wal-Mart had closed by then, surely a bad omen. When’s the last time you heard of a Wal-Mart closing during regular hours?
Anyway, the original hotel had a full restaurant in it, so we had food for as long as we were stranded.
Later that day, John was able to go rescue the bus. The roads were passable but far from pristine – if ever there were a place less prepared to handle wintry weather than North Carolina, it’s Alabama. In three days there, we never saw one snow plow, not one trace of salt on the roads.
Tuesday came and the game was played. Given what they’d just been through, it was no surprise that the girls came out a bit sluggish, and Samford rolled to a 20-point win. (Side note – in the two previous meetings in Birmingham, Samford won both games by three points each. Coming into the contest, UNCG was actually outscoring Samford by a point per game in the series. Neither team has lost on its home court in the series, and a 20-point result either way was well outside the norm.)
After the game, the dilemma of getting home was now at the forefront. The most obvious and direct route is through Georgia, but since Hotlanta was anything but (and the roads there apparently littered with 18-wheelers virtually frozen into place), that was a no-go.
After numerous phone calls to contacts along the route and several consultations with the map, the decision was made to take the circuitous route through Nashville. For those of you not familiar with the geography in that neck of the woods, that would like be trying to get to Charleston, S.C., by way of Virginia.
It’s not exactly on the way.
The thought was that Nashville was about as far as we’d get Tuesday, but the roads in Tennessee were in good shape, so we soldiered on. We made it as far as Cookeville before the snow got to the point that we had to check into hotel No. 4 on the trip, and wouldn’t you know it, the place we managed to get reservations for sat at the top of a hill. Here we go again.
John managed to get the bus up the hill for us to unload, but leaving it there overnight was not an option if we wanted to get down the next morning in one piece. So, he parked it in the Burger King lot next door, which meant that to load the bus the following morning, we all had to trudge about 200 yards through the snow, all lugging our bags as best we could through the couple of inches of accumulation.
The snow continued for much of the way home, but the Interstates were in pretty good shape. John did an amazing job getting us home – and under stress I can’t imagine.
Some might call the trip an adventure, others might call it a disaster, but the term that came up most often was “trip from hell.”
After all that, you’d probably just want to chill at home for a few days, relax and enjoy sleeping in your own bed for a while, right?
Well, too bad. We load the bus Friday for a game at College of Charleston. Here’s hoping we don’t have to go through Richmond to get there.