Before the Western Technical College women’s basketball team left for its last extended road trip earlier this month, Holmen High School graduate Caitlin Young asked coach Chad Dull where Ironwood, Michigan, was located.
She wasn’t used to traveling to unfamiliar towns.
Young, like most of her Cavaliers teammates, weren’t prepared for taking long bus rides for games. In the Coulee Region, some players only had to travel for a few dozen miles for games. The longest trip Young had to take, for example, was an MVC game to Tomah, which is about an hour away.
That isn’t the case with the Western men’s and women’s basketball teams, however, as each has traveled more than 1,500 miles in the month of December alone, and to places far more remote than some of the players have ever experienced.
The Cavaliers traveled to Ironwood, Michigan; Hibbing and International Falls, Minnesota, in the month of December. International Falls, if you didn’t know, is located on the U.S.-Canadian border, and is often equated to the coldest city in the continental United States. It’s a long way — in many ways — from Western’s home gymnasium at Holy Cross Seminary Gymnasium on the South Side of La Crosse.
Two weeks before that stretch of northern tier games, the Cavaliers women journeyed to Escanaba, Michigan, to Bay College. The team also played at Madison Community College on Dec. 5.
The Western women (6-5) — whose junior-college roster is mostly comprised of freshmen — had to learn how play after a long day’s travel.
“My freshmen would tell you, that trip to Escanaba, they didn’t know how to get ready,” Western women’s coach Chad Dull said.
“I think it’s a matter of acknowledging that it’s a privilege to play college basketball and part of the dream at this level is that you’re going to travel. If you think you’re going to crawl off the bus and play your best, that’s just not realistic.”
The Cavaliers’ longest journey began Dec. 7 to International Falls. That was a 401-mile, one-way trip north to Rainy River Community College, which according to Apple Maps, takes 6 hours and 29 minutes. It’s seemingly less than a half-court shot from the Canadian border, or more accurately, less than a mile.
Before that trip, Dull talked about the best ways of preparing for a long trip yet still being able to play basketball at high level once you get there.
The solution? Eating healthy and drinking a significant amount of water.
So, as the women loaded the bus en route to the near-border trip, the Cavaliers’ coaching staff noticed the food selection was much more satisfying.
The Cavaliers went on to beat previously-unbeaten Rainy River later that night.
The next day, each of Western’s squads found themselves in Hibbing, Minnesota, which is 100 miles from International Falls.
After the games, Western returned home, but for less than a week. On Dec. 14, the two teams took off for Michigan, where the Cavaliers played Gogebic Community College.
That trip length? 238 miles or 4 hours, 33 minutes on a bus seat. In total, each the women’s and men’s teams played five games in 11 days.
“This year was a little unusual that the scheduling fell with all five of those in a row,” Dull said of the games. “I’m the fool that thought it’d be a good idea to go to Gogebic on the 14th and 15th. We went up there on Friday and struggled, then beat Gogebic on Saturday for the first time in a number of years.”
Despite the long trips, there were some benefits as the Western women were able to see what the team had for depth. The Cavaliers have 13 players on their roster, and just recently added another one with Logan graduate Alana Gruntzel. All 13 players played high school basketball within 80 miles of La Crosse.
“When we played Gogebic, they had seven players and we had 13,” Dull said. “It was a two-point game at half, and we ran away from them in the second half because we came in waves. We got the nicest compliment from the other coach: All the girls are interchangeable.”
Neither the women’s or men’s team has played at home since Dec. 1, and the lengthy road trips have given both teams a chance to get to know one another.
Cochrane-Fountain City High School graduate Kerrigan Lyga has learned to like road trips since she started playing at Western, and if it were up to her, she’d have the Cavaliers play on the road all season.
“I love long bus rides. I think they’re a lot of fun,” Lyga said. “I feel like the bus ride, you have so much time to focus and really envision on how you’re going to play and how the game is going to go. When it’s a home game, you go to class beforehand.”
Lyga never took a long road trip in her junior high or high school career, mainly because C-FC only had five girls in Lyga’s graduating class who played basketball.
However, she did take a charter bus to Madison when the Pirates qualified for the state softball tournament in 2014 and 2016.
Lyga recalled that the longest trip that the Pirates took during her basketball playing career at C-FC was 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Maybe that’s why she’s thankful for fellowship on the long trips.
“We’re getting to know the boys team, too,” Lyga said. “It’s more fun to cheer them on because we know them better. All the overnights, we hang out with them, too. It’s forcing us to spend time with each other. At first things were a little bit awkward, but now we’re all more comfortable with each other. I’m really excited for the rest of the season, because of the chemistry we have because of the away games.
“We have a chance to talk with each other about the game, what we think what we could do better and I think that’s really important,” Lyga added. “It’s important to have that time to be open with each other. Without the bus rides, we wouldn’t have time to sit down and talk.”
Western returns to the road Jan. 9 at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota, and then will return home Jan. 16 against Rochester Community College.
“If you think you’re going to crawl off the bus and play your best, that’s just not realistic.” Western women’s coach Chad Dull