The Long Road To Chinle

Longhorns, Wildcats split wins in three-game series

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It's printed as a road game on the Payson High School basketball schedule.

But, for the 80-plus players, cheerleaders and coaches who are boarding two yellow Blue Bird school buses early Jan. 7, it's an 18-hour Odyssey to and from one of northern Arizona's most remote Navajo reservation towns.

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Early Friday morning, Longhorn basketball players are aboard the school bus bound for Chinle where six games were to be played that evening.

The demanding excursion to Chinle High School is necessary because the Wildcats are members of the Class 4A Grand Canyon region along with Payson. Even though the two schools are hundreds of miles apart and cultural opposites, Arizona Interscholastic Association rules mandate that the Longhorns and Wildcats play one another in a home and away series.

In Chinle, three games are to be played in the new Wildcat gymnasium; three are to be contested in the community's civic center.

As the coach of the junior varsity boy's basketball team, I'm riding on one of the buses, but I'm not looking forward to it. During 37 years of coaching and teaching, I've developed an utter dislike for rock-hard bench seats, no leg room and bouncing buses that ride as if shock absorbers were never installed.

Knowing what I do about yellow buses, I vowed following my retirement last spring, that I'd never board another one of those traveling kidney punches.

So much for that promise.

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Lady Longhorn basketball players Sage Hallman and Jadyn Walden clown for the camera during a lunch stop at a Holbrook fast-food restaurant.

As the buses lumber out of the PHS parking lots, chat turns to the possibility of having to spend the night in the Heber Mogollon High School gymnasium. An overnight stay there could be necessary if heavy snow falls as predicted. PHS school administrators made arrangements for us to hunker down in Heber until roads are safely cleared of snow and ice.

Before departing, bus drivers take one final precaution of stopping at the maintenance barn to pick up tire chains
As we motor past Kohl's Ranch, my first thoughts are how much the dynamics of school bus travel has changed with the advent of personal DVD players.

In the past, players spent the travel time reading, playing Game Boys, engaged in teen talk or honed in to their Walkmans.

On this trip, however, many of the players are toting portable DVD players, earphones and their favorite movies.

What next, popcorn machines?

Although high-tech electronics have changed team travel, the camaraderie nourished during these hours on the road will continue to be a key element in the value of the high school athletic experience.

During my long stint in public education, I found there were some teachers who had a difficult time understanding the tight bonds that develops between players and coaches. Experience has taught me it is on these long road trips where the roots of close relationships are planted.

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Haylee Huff, a 5-foot, 5-inch senior point guard, fueled the Lady Longhorns to a Grand Canyon Region win over the Wildcats Friday evening in Chinle.

Our first stop is Overgaard where players use the restrooms and get drinks and snacks.

As I check out, the clerk asks where we are bound for.

"Chinle," I answer.

Apparently, he's not impressed.

He says, with more than a bit of sarcasm, "Oh boy, I wish I were you."

From Overgaard, we inch toward Holbrook where we know a bounty of fast food joints await us.

In the front of our bus, varsity coach Mike Loutzenheiser, freshman coach Kenny Hayes and I trade barbs. Kenny thinks it's hilarious a man my age is still coaching and I wonder how he could ever win a game with his lack of experience. Although Loutzenheiser is suffering the after effects of a day at the dentist, he manages a dig or two.

Upon reaching Holbrook, the players scatter much like a covey of quail under shotgun attack. Some want Big Macs, others KFC and still others seek out burritos.

The sight of a horde of hungry, thirsty teens bounding out of the two schools buses must be commonplace among the fast-food workers. All go about their work quietly and efficiently filling countless orders.

With tummies full and thirst quenched, we board for the final leg of our trip north.

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At 3 a.m. Saturday, the 18-hour bus round trip to Chinle ends in the Payson High School parking lot.

The steadfast rule from here is there will be no more stops until Chinle.

But as we approach Ganado, at least three cheerleaders manage to convince Loutzenheiser that it is humanly impossible to continue without a bathroom break.

The bus jerks and tugs into a 1950s vintage service station where only one restroom is open.

An elderly Navajo man stands at the corner of the station gawking at the sight of the cheerleaders fleeing the bus for first shot at the restroom.

Hayes is longingly eyeing a stray puppy he wants to take home with him. We quickly nix that notion unless the dog rides all the way on his lap.

The cheerleaders reboard, and we head towards Chinle and our showdown with the Wildcats.

At Chinle

Upon arriving, we visit both the high school gymnasium and civic center finding only district workers preparing the facilities for the evening's games.

In pregame ceremonies, we learn of the Navajo Nation's great love for basketball and their pride in tribe and country. The public announcer appeals for donations to help a stricken coach hospitalized in New Mexico. Coaches from the school's glory years in the late 1960s when the Wildcats advanced to three state tournaments are honored. A moment of silence is held for Navajo and American soldiers fighting abroad and the school's junior ROTC drill team presents the colors to the more than 2,000 fans in attendance for varsity games.

Finally, a musically talented CHS student plays a solo guitar rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner." Some of the pregame is announced in Navajo, which we understand absolutely none of.

The fans are vociferous in their support of their beloved cats; it's obvious they have a good knowledge of the game.

It's early in the boy's varsity game and relief bus drivers have arrived from Payson. They're needed because state laws set the limits on how long drivers can be at the wheel of a bus. Our original drivers have about reached that limit.

As the games wind down, the snow in Ganado is falling heavily. Many, including parents who have driven to Chinle, are worried about road conditions on the return trip.

The night ends with about what was anticipated -- we split the six games with the Wildcats 3 to 3.

I think our players are impressed with the tenacity of the Wildcat athletes. They are not big, but skilled and love to play the game.

Following showers, our players board the bus in a flurry of snowfall.

The snowy road home

As we depart Chinle, our bus pulls up behind a state snowplow which clears the road for us to a junction just past Ganado.

Players are munching on the submarine sandwiches, cookies and chips we brought with us in coolers from Payson.

The DVD players are turned on and everyone is settling in to watch a movie. It's nearly midnight and as weather conditions improve, the bus has picked up a little speed.

Good news arrives via a cell phone that Highway 260 from Heber to Payson has been cleared and we will not have to stop overnight at Mogollon High School.

It's now about 1 a.m. and we are approaching an Interstate 10ruck stop where we'll take a final restroom break.

As the bus slows to a halt, weary, sleepy players, cheerleaders and coaches trudge into the restaurant for one final break before we complete the final leg of the journey.

After reboarding, the bus turns eerily silent -- most everyone is asleep. A jayvee player asks me to move my feet out of the aisle so he can stretch out there.

I try to sleep, but cannot find a comfortable position.

It's approaching 3 a.m. and the lights of Payson are on the horizon.

Gradually, everyone awakens, gathers their stuff and gets ready to depart the bus that has been our home for almost a day.

In the PHS parking lot, some younger players are greeted by their parents for a ride home. Coaches and players with cars and trucks crank up engines and fire up heaters.

In minutes, drivers return the buses to the maintenance yard where they'll be readied for school Monday.

It's been a long, tiring day. But the players can take pride in their performances. They played hard and represented themselves and their school well.

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