NCAA BASEBALL: For 69 games, Mustangs were road warriors

MARSHALL – Southwest Minnesota State baseball coach Paul Blanchard could hardly contain his excitement. He climbed in his Honda Accord and started to back out of the driveway.

It took his wife, Nancy, yelling a warning and signaling to him to keep him from hitting the garage door on the way out.

It’s hard to blame the guy.

For the first time in 69 games, Blanchard was driving to SMSU’s Alumni Field to get ready for the home opener against Winona State. It was a luxury that the Mustangs didn’t get to enjoy last season as they played all their games in 2013, as well the first half of this year’s season, on the road due to winter weather conditions.

“It felt nice to not have to get on a bus for a change,” Blanchard said. “It was a little weird at first because you realize you have a bunch of stuff to do to get the field ready. It took a little bit to realize we were actually hosting a baseball game.”

Getting on a charter bus was something that both players and coaches became accustomed to last season as they finished with a 17-23-1 record, including going 6-4 on the road and 11-19-1 at neutral sites.

Life on a charter bus, especially with how often the players travel on them, can provide some interesting experiences.

One of the main challenges on a charter bus is getting ample sleep as the chairs have minimal reclining ability (if the reclining function works at all) and the aisles are just wide enough to put one foot in front of the other.

It’s your typical coach flight on wheels.

“Sometimes you don’t even sleep,” senior catcher/third basemen Jordon Kontz said. “Some roads you drive on, it’s way too bumpy to even sleep. You just kinda sit there.”

For senior pitcher Steven Wehr and some of his other teammates, the seats weren’t going to cut it for sleeping.

They were forced to find other spots on the bus in order to catch some shut-eye.

“A lot of us, at the end of last season, caught ourselves sleeping in the aisles or under the seats,” Wehr said. “Everybody is dead tired after games and some of us had class at 8:30 the next morning and you had to get your sleep in.”

Making it back and forth to class provided another interesting perspective and a lot of the players avoid this hassle by taking online classes offered by SMSU in the spring. By taking online classes, it allows the players more flexibility in getting their work done.

Unless, of course, a Wi-Fi connection isn’t readily available.

The team often has a portable Wi-Fi connection with them, but it can present a problem when everyone needs to get their online homework done at once.

Wehr remembers one such incident last season.

“The internet hadn’t been working, so when guys found out it was up and ready to go, everyone had to get their homework done at once,” Wehr said. “There was so many people on at one time that the connection fried and it actually started on fire. There was smoke swirling around the entire front of the bus. That is one thing I will never forget out of all the road trips. Everyone thought it was pretty comical.”

Situations like these become counterproductive, causing some players to start their homework when they get home at times like 2:30 a.m. Despite the problems, they still feel this is the better option than missing a bunch of class days with the mid-week road trips.

One of the trips that will stick with Kontz is from his sophomore season.

“We sat in Mankato for an hour and a half during finals week because we weren’t sure if we we’re going up to Bemidji the next day,” Kontz said. “We were sitting at this little strip mall thing and we started going outside and playing all sorts of mini baseball games, trying to find ways to pass the time.”

They ended up making the five-and-half hour trek up to Bemidji, arriving a little before 2 a.m. for an early game the next day. They ended up dropping three to the Beavers and knew fatigue was a factor.

Being on the road creates a sense of appreciation for getting to be home and be around the families and friends and playing on familiar turf.

It creates a huge change in pace.

“You’re always having to jump on a bus and go to games,” Kontz said. “It’s real nice when you’re able to sleep in your own bed. It’s way more relaxed. It’s real nice to just be able to slow things down.”

While there are plenty of negative aspects of being on the road for so long and so frequently, there a plenty of positive aspects as well.

It gives the players chances to become closer with each other as they have to find ways to pass the time with each other.

“The biggest thing is team bonding,” Wehr said. “There’s times where we’ll just be sitting in the back of the bus and we’ll start making up card games. We made the best of it. It turned out to be pretty fun.”