On the road, again

August 19, 2018

Even after more than 30 years of trying, Lake Havasu volleyball coach Kari Thompson hasn’t found a way to make long bus rides comfortable.

“I think there’s 18 different sleeping positions that you try and you never fall asleep,” Thompson said. “As I get older it gets worse”

As important as practice reps and proper equipment, finding a good rhythm to the travel schedule can be just as crucial for the Knights.

Lake Havasu is the most isolated high school athletics program in the state. Of the 261 schools that participate in the Arizona Interscholastic Association, no school is on the road more than the Knights, and coaches, administration, players and parents have gotten the long trips down to a science.

“We make sure to travel with power strips, we make sure we’ve got Wi-Fi. The kids are studying between games and matches, they’re very good about doing things on the buses,” Thompson said.

“The trips to Phoenix and the late nights, we’re usually not back before 11 p.m. They do have to get their work done on the bus. We just have to work with that.”

As the largest school for 150 miles in any direction, Havasu has to travel out of necessity. Of 43 teams in the 5A conference the last two seasons, Havasu was the only one outside of Phoenix or Tucson, requiring the Knights to travel at least three hours in one direction for every regional game or playoff matchup. Even in non-regional play, nearly every trip outside of town is a long trek to find a team at the same level of competition.

In total, Havasu spans more than 400 miles per trip in region play, more than all but two small schools in Colorado City and Fredonia, neither of which field the breadth of sports as the Knights.

“It’s the nature of the beast having a school this size in its location,” Lake Havasu athletics director Brady Krueger said. “Most of our coaches are used to it, most of the kids are used to it. They know what to do. They know the drill.”

When it dropped down to 4A during reclassification this fall, Havasu petitioned to transfer to the Southwest region with the smaller Yuma schools, a move that would have trimmed a little more than 50 miles and $100 off each trip, but was denied by the AIA. It looked at competing in the Grand Canyon region with Northwest rivals Mohave and Lee Williams, but decided the added trips to Flagstaff and Mingus would negate the benefits of a few close contests in Kingman and Bullhead City. In recent years, the school has even explored competing in California or Nevada, but found safety and insurance concerns better suited in state.

The school has looked at chartering buses, but with the closest local charter companies in Las Vegas and Phoenix, the added cost of having to ship the bus back, it didn’t make sense. Even owning a charter-style coach bus wasn’t in the plans.

So, the Knights pile onto classic yellow school buses for each trip. They’re new school buses, thanks to the recent passage of a bond for the schools, but without any creature comforts designed for a long trip.

“I think you just train yourself to learn to live without sleep,” Thompson said.

That trek does allow for a unique home-field advantage for the Knights, which can catch an unprepared team tired, playing out west after its only long trek of the season. As it is, Havasu competes in a region with schools in the western Phoenix Valley, traveling more than 270 miles per trip than its four counterparts.

That distance can make it tough to organize meets or tournaments that attract some of the tougher Phoenix competition, considering there is often a closer event taking place in the Valley. And because the AIA changes regions every two seasons, often bouncing Havasu around to limit the burden on Phoenix-area schools, it’s been hard to build the types of rivalries and relationships with other coaches and administrators that would incentivize a trip west.

“We’re kind of in the middle,” Krueger said. “The Yuma schools kind of have an arrangement that they work out, where they play each other a lot, between the 4A and 6A schools. They don’t venture out a lot unless they have to in their regions.

“We try to stay as local as possible but there’s not a lot of Phoenix schools that want to come out and make that trip.”

To cover it all, Havasu spends more than $120,000 each year on travel, which totals about 20 percent of its total budget. It also asks each student to pay a $400 athletics fee, which according to Krueger helps cover equipment, officials, tournament fees and other travel costs.

“We have to have the participation fee if we’re going to have an athletics department,” Krueger said.

All that travel puts more than just miles on tires for Havasu, it takes a toll on the entire school. Students miss full days of classwork and coaches, many of whom are also teachers at the school, have to plan for substitutes to fill in while they’re gone. For students who play multiple sports or teachers who coach more than one team, it can add up over the course of the year.

Thompson, who coaches both volleyball and softball, is used to the wear and tear of it all, as a star player for the Knights in the early 90s and as the head of the math department now.

“It takes a lot of planning prior to,” Thompson said. “I try to pace my classes out so the days I’m out there’s something to work with, I’ve gotten the content in. It works pretty well. I plan three months ahead.”

She said technology has helped vastly in keeping students on pace during all of that time away from school.

“A lot of the teachers are on Google Classroom now, so even if they’re not in class they see the assignments, they’ve got the exact notes that happened for the day. They’ve often got videos that go with it. Technology has gone a long way in helping us bridge that. But, it’s really about the type of kids we have and their time management. They’ve adapted really well to handle that.

“The other schools are actually really good at working with us. They’ll usually put us up in the cafeteria and let our varsity kids work for an hour or two when we first get there. Then freshmen can study after and work when varsity is playing. “

The effort extends beyond athletes, coaches and administration to volunteers that help drive each bus and parents, who often have to pick up and drop off students at odd hours of the morning.

While Havasu is an outlier statewide, it’s not unusual for every school on the Colorado River to be making a long trip every time it leaves home. The region had half of the top 20 traveled teams over the last two seasons and even after reclassification has four of the top seven.

The Yuma public schools try to schedule the rest of their out of conference travel without entering the major metros, sometimes traveling up to Havasu but often playing in California’s Imperial Valley, only about an hour away, at one point looking into playing in the CIF before remaining in Arizona, their administration said.

Yuma Catholic, which along with San Pasqual Valley just across the river in California are each just below Havasu on the list of most-traveled schools, often has its already high travel costs increase because of success on the field. While many tournaments are seeded, and allow home games for the Shamrocks in the playoffs, most finals are in Phoenix.

Mohave, in Bullhead City, is on the top of the travel list and counters by playing not only Havasu locally, but a pair of schools that compete in Nevada just over the river in Laughlin and Needles.

Parker, nearly as isolated as Havasu, competes in a region that features three schools within 30 miles of each other, while it travels 274 miles round trip.

It’s part of life on the west coast of Arizona.

“We’ve done everything we can,” Krueger said. “Our location is not necessarily a convenient location to run an athletic department out of. But, we make do with what we have and we do the best we can.”

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