Spending long hours on cramped buses is as much a part of the NAIA college football experience as sore ribs and cafeteria food.
And thanks to their decision to join the Montana-based Frontier Conference, the Southern Oregon Raiders this year are living that experience more than ever.
The Raiders (2-1) boarded a bus in Ashland Thursday morning and embarked on a 954-mile journey — that's one-way, not round trip — to Butte, Mont., for today's game against 16th-ranked Montana Tech (3-1). The estimated 15-hour trek (by car, that is) is one of four trips to Montana — two by bus, and two by plane — that the Raiders will make this season in addition to a 550-mile roadie to La Grande for a game against Eastern Oregon.
All told, the Raiders will log more than 9,000 miles — 9,286 to be exact — this season not counting any playoff games should they end their nine-year postseason drought. That translates into about 82 hours on buses in addition to two road trips by plane for games in Havre, Mont. (against Montana State University-Northern) and Dillon, Mont. (against Montana-Western).
So, what do the Raiders do with all that down time?
Sleep, listen to music, text, sleep, homework, read, sleep.
"It's always real easy to say that you'll get the school work done on the bus," explains sophomore right tackle Drew Gibson, "but there's a lot of free time. And then we're in the hotel rooms, and we get free time there, too."
"We stop a few times and we're going to stretch," added senior receiver Mike Olson, "but still, you're sitting on a bus for 16 hours. You just get tight, and you're kind of groggy when you get off the bus. It's just long."
Gibson and Olson spoke about the challenges of long road trips following Wednesday's practice, which wrapped up at about 6:30 p.m. Nine-and-a-half hours later, at 4 a.m. Thursday, the Raiders began the first leg of their journey to Butte. They were scheduled to arrive in Wilsonville for an 8:30 a.m. breakfast before hitting the road again. They ate lunch at a Quiznos in Pasco, Wash., at noon, then drove another two-and-a-half hours before calling it a day at a Red Lion in Spokane, Wash.
Friday was easier by comparison. After a 9 a.m. breakfast, the Raiders were scheduled to practice at the University of Montana from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. before driving the remaining two hours to Butte, where they checked into a Best Western.
The rest of the day is made up of down time, dinner and a series of meetings — team meetings, squad meetings and fellowship meetings. Then it's lights out by 10:30 p.m.
"I think the challenge is trying to keep your mind on the right things as you travel up there," Gibson said, "and making sure you're nice and loose when the game starts after traveling so long. But the coaches, they do a really good job of keeping us fresh on the bus. We don't travel too long at one point. We get off every stop and we stretch. We practice in between trips. We're not driving all day long and we're not cramping up on the bus, so it's not too bad."
A raging optimist, SOU head coach Craig Howard did his best to put a positive spin on the extreme travel that his team must endure — which this season does not include the most daunting trip of all in the Frontier Conference, the 1,500-mile journey to Dickinson, N.D. to play Dickinson State.
"There's a lot of bonding that goes on on trips like this," he said. "It's long no matter what you do, but we try to make it as positive and as enjoyable as we can. And it's always enjoyable coming back when you win."
That didn't happen last time, on Sept. 8, when the Raiders traveled 1,179 miles (about 18 hours) to Billings, Mont. for their first-ever Frontier Conference road game against Rocky Mountain. The Raiders got off to a fine start, jumping out to leads of 10-0 and 17-7, before the Battlin' Bears scored 38 straight points on their way to a 52-30 rout.
Howard refused to blame even a fraction of SOU's sluggish second quarter — when the Raiders were outscored 31-0 — on the long road trip, instigating his strict "no-excuses" policy.
"You never look for excuses," he said. "You could say it was the travel, but it wasn't. We did not play well. And we learned from that, and we played a lot better this last week at home. Rocky Mountain "…was hot, and they were rolling, very confident. So I think I give more credit to Rocky Mountain than I do the bus trip."
The Raiders can make up for the Rocky Mountain debacle and then some today against a Montana Tech team that already has an impressive win over No. 8 Carroll under its belt. The Orediggers also did what SOU couldn't when they shut down Rocky Mountain in an impressive 24-6 victory last week.
Montana Tech's lone loss was a 26-23 setback to No. 14 Eastern Oregon in both teams season opener.
"It's the biggest game since I've been here," Howard said, "and I told the kids that earlier in the week. That's why I came here, to get these boys in to big games, and this is a big one. And guess what, if you win it you play in bigger ones. And if you lose it, you're back to just playing games."