High school teams cope with tough travel schedules

The Oak Hill Academy Warriors are accustomed to stuffing their long bodies into planes, trains, automobiles, vans and buses. Roads games are the norm.

Oak Hill, a Baptist-affiliated boarding school from Mouth of Wilson, Va., rarely plays home games at its outdated gymnasium in rural Grayson County, a long jump shot from the North Carolina state line.

Road games are a privilege when you play for America's perennial boys basketball powerhouse. The team has earned the moniker "Road Warriors" for its adaptability to hostile environs, while delicately balancing a demanding college preparatory course load and frequent flier miles.

"We're used to it," Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. "Kids come to this school to get their academics in order and to play against the best players and the best teams in the nation.

"Teams aspire to be us. We're proud of that."

Oak Hill, which built its reputation in the early 1990s with all-out style of play, has pulled back on scheduling. Smith, who carefully schedules each game so it does not interfere with class time, has seen plenty of fast food restaurants, rest stops and long snaking airport lines over the years.

"Oak Hill is a team everyone wants to see, plus they're good for TV," says Smith.

Lately, OHA has opted for more conventional scheduling. Games are usually two or three hours by bus, with a bulk of them played against in-state schools or in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina or West Virginia.

Oak Hill's gold team (or the nationally known squad) normally leaves after school dismissal, looking to arrive one hour before tip-off. After the game the bus stops for a quick meal with the arrival back on campus around midnight.

Oak Hill's travel sked

Players are accustomed to reading on the bus prior to the game. Smith says his club will miss 3 1/2 days of class this season.

This year the Warriors play 11 home games of their 37 games at their bandbox 400-seat gymnasium.

"That's a lot of home dates for us," Smith said. "Eleven (home games) is the most and we've played as few as four at home."

At the height of Oak Hill's heavy travel seasons, Smith's teams typically played three tournaments over the holiday break.

"Then I realized the kids weren't going home for Christmas. I stopped doing that; the kids need time to enjoy time with their families," he said. "At the time my kids were young, too."

Oak Hill, Westchester and Fairfax (both of Los Angeles), Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.), Rice, Christ the King and St. Raymond (all three of New York City) and St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) are elite teams sponsored by Nike.

Schools from the Nike stable are more apt to travel, showcasing their national reputation.
St. Patrick and Rice went to the McDonald's Classic in Erie, Pa., over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Both missed one day of classes.

When does travel become cumbersome?

Usually a stickler, St. Patrick principal Joe Picaro allowed the team to travel by his rules for a Feb. 2 tournament in California.

The Celtics will fly out from Newark Liberty International on Feb. 1 (Friday) and return on the morning of Feb. 3 (Sunday). Their stay will total less than 36 hours, covering 5,000 miles.

"The tournament (Nike Extravaganza) organizers booked us for travel two days before the game and I quickly said no," Picaro said. "I'm tough. I rarely give time off from school."

When St. Patrick travels student-athletes are asked to travel in school uniform (shirt and tie, dress pants and shoes) and attend a mandatory study hall.

Picaro, who has worked at the urban Roman Catholic diocesan school for 37 years (the last 16 as principal), might be old school but sees the benefits of travel.

"It gives many a chance to see parts of the country and learn how to travel. They have to behave on the road in the hotel and in restaurants," Picaro said.

The allure of the road has fascinated coaches, players and teams for years. Why play a game with a lopsided score in your backyard when there are teams waiting for you in sexy locations like Fort Myers, Fla. (for the City of Palms Classic) or Honolulu (Iolani Classic) annually during the week leading into Christmas?
Television has boosted the national perception of high school basketball. In recent years budding stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Sebastian Telfair, Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and O.J. Mayo have appeared on the ESPN family of channels.

"You build a game around a team or a player," said Rashid Ghazi of Paragon Marketing, who coordinates games shown on ESPN.

"The perception is TV games take the athletes away from the school; sometimes they do. But the trend lately is to showcase local or regional rivalries, games that were already scheduled. These are compelling matchups."

In the fall, the Old High School Showcase featured 12 football games, and only three schools missed class (each school one day). In the current basketball season, only two schools involved in the 15 games have missed class.

Schools such as Our Savior New American of Centereach, N.Y. are forced to hit the road because it is not a member of the New York Public High School Athletic Association or New York State Association of Independent School Athletic Associations. The Long Island school is an hour from New York City where four teams in the latest ESPN HIGH Elite 25 rankings preside.

OSNA yearns to play the likes of New York Catholic League powerhouses Christ the King (Middle Village), St. Raymond (Bronx), Holy Cross (Flushing) and Rice (Manhattan), or Brooklyn public schools Lincoln or Boys and Girls but state regulations say no.

Unless OSNA, an independent school affiliated with the Lutheran church, rejoins the state's independent association, it will seek games against out-of-state opponents.

"We'd love to play against schools in Suffolk or Nassau counties but we can't," said OSNA assistant Eric Jaklitsch, who schedules games.

Instead, the Pioneers flock to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio for games.

Travel is a necessity for OSNA, which features 6-4 guard Geraldo Suero, a member of the Dominican Republic Junior National Team who will choose between St. John's, Pittsburgh and DePaul.

Jaklitsch says the OSNA are aware of the pitfalls of extensive travel. He estimates players will only miss "up to seven days of classes." The Pioneers will miss four days in early March when it plays at the National Association of Christian Athletes' 16-team national tournament in Dayton, Tenn.

"We have built-in mandatory (two-hour) study halls each day we're on the road," Jaklitsch said.

Smith of Oak Hill did not schedule games for the West Coast this year but did have one stretch during the school's nearly four-week semester break when it played five games in 10 days, including a date with St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.) on ESPN2 in Benton, Ky.

Ask Steve Kozaki of National Basketball Events Inc., about tournaments, travel and books.

As a former educator who now runs girls basketball tournaments, including the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions in Chandler, Ariz., Kozaki is meticulous when booking teams for his events.

Unlike most tournaments, Kozaki requires each contract to be signed by the school's athletic director and principal.

"I make sure the school administration is OK with them (the teams) coming here," he said. "Some teams will miss school and depending on the school's calendar others don't. But I like when they sign off and know what the team's doing."

There's a reason why Kozaki pays attention to detail: the TOC is the best high basketball tournament (for either gender) in the nation.

Held annually the week before Christmas, the TOC's Black Division (or the elite bracket) has 16 teams, mostly in the ESPN HIGH Elite 25 girls' rankings. In all, 96 teams compete that week (in five separate brackets), with a second session (post-Christmas) adding 40 more.

"No I don't think travel has become a problem," said Kozaki, who moved the TOC to the Phoenix area in 2001 after stints in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Chicago. "Schools which are invited either accept right away or call back and say 'we'd love to but we have exams.' Hey, that's fine. Never put the tournament in front of missing school or tests."

Two years ago, Collins Hills (Suwanee, Ga.) came to Arizona, where it advanced to the Black Division final, and took mid-semester exams.

"They (Collins Hill) had teachers proctoring the exams," Kozaki said. "It all went well."

The high level of competition is what brings teams back.

"And to bring a team together -- experience adversity like delays at airports and share living space that you normally wouldn't," said Christ the King (New York) coach Bob Mackey, whose teams won the TOC in 2005 and '06.

Christ the King, the nation's premier girls program for the last quarter-century, adheres to the travel rule set forth by its league (New York Catholic High School Athletic Association) and the state.

Going to Arizona is a year-long process.

Mackey, the school's dean of students and associate athletic director, needs to get permission from his principal and board of directors before going to the league and the state. Securing airplane tickets adds to the burden.

Mackey, previously a science teacher, has tutored his athletes on a variety of subjects and proctored tests and study halls.

"We get tremendous support and cooperation from the school," Mackey said. "And our players always seem to have a book in their hands when we aren't playing."

Mackey knows there are pundits who dislike traveling to national events because the students are missing class time but points out "you have many rewarding experiences."

To wit, last Friday Christ the King missed a day of school to play in the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., against Ursuline Academy (Wilmington, Del.), a team it beat in Arizona.

Most will conclude traveling means exposure for players.

This year 213 college coaches attended the TOC in Arizona. That's on par with previous years.

"A head coach can justify sending an assistant for two or three days during the middle of their seasons to evaluate players from 96 teams," Kozaki said. "Coaches won't fly out for one game, they need more than that and the Tournament of Champions affords them the opportunity."

In Kansas, the No. 13 Wichita Heights girls used last weekend's trip to the Shawnee Mission South/Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Shootout as a dry run for its state tournament in March.

Wichita Heights, Kansas' two-time Class 6A champion (four in the last six years), is bound by state travel rules which allow member schools to play as far as 500 miles from the state border.

Last weekend's trip to Shawnee Mission (a suburb of Kansas City) is three hours away. The tournament provided Heights with three quality wins, vaulting them four spots in the Elite 25 rankings.

Coach Kip Pulliam said his club missed two days of school, but when your team grade-point average is 3.8 (on a scale of 4.0) and teachers cooperate, it's a slam dunk.

"Our administration is great," Pulliam said. "We get great support from the teachers and they know in advance when we're going away. We'll have study halls each day and we make sure they (the players) get their homework assignments completed."

Should Wichita Heights qualify for another state tournament at Emporia State, Pulliam's team would have play three games in three days (March 6-8).

"Travel benefits a team; you develop a bond and learn something new about your teammates or coaches," he said. "It's always good to see your teammates other than the two hours at practice or in the classroom."

Pulliam said his team goes back to Shawnee Mission South next January to fulfill a backend year of the contract but will ultimately return to the Tournament of Champions in Fort Smith, Ark., in December 2009. Heights' tight 20-game schedule is fueled by 16 league tilts, allowing little scheduling wiggle room.

Where is it headed?

"National games will take place each year regardless if TV is present," Ghazi said.

"Teams might devote less than 10% of their games on the road. We never ask a team to travel if it involves missing school. Schools with flexible schedules usually agree to games but really, things are maxed out. The national games occur when the timing is right; many components need to fall in place."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.