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The Best Of John’s Journal From 2021-22/ No. 7: Life On The Road Is Every Day Up North

Posted: Thursday, July 7, 2022 - 7:14 AM

The Roseau girls hockey team drove more than three hours each way for a playoff game in Moorhead.

Here is No. 7 on the countdown of my favorite stories from the 2021-22 school year. I had wanted to write about the travel challenges that teams in northern Minnesota face for a long time, and a visit to Moorhead High School was the perfect opportunity.

Here’s the story, originally posted on Feb. 15 …

MOORHEAD -- Tuesday was a busy evening at Moorhead High School. The Spuds boys basketball team played a 6 p.m. home game against Bemidji, and next door at Moorhead Sports Center, the Spuds girls hockey team met Roseau in a 7 p.m. Class 2A Section 8 playoff semifinal.

If you have a map of Minnesota handy, look at those three locations: Moorhead, Bemidji and Roseau. Eyeball those distances. The visiting teams from Bemidji and Roseau drove more than 600 combined bus miles – lasting more than five and a half hours -- to get to Moorhead and back home on a school night.

And nobody batted an eye. Because long road trips are standard for teams in northern Minnesota, especially those from large schools that need to pack a lunch -- and a dinner -- in order to travel to schools of similar size.

Bemidji senior basketball player Gavin Luksik laid it out perfectly after the Lumberjacks defeated the Spuds 62-60.

“It's funny because teams will come up to our place on a weeknight and they'll be like, ‘Man, it stinks driving up here. We have to go to school in the morning.’ That's an everyday thing for us. We're driving two and a half hours every night.”

That’s correct. Bemidji’s one-way drive of nearly two and a half hours to Moorhead is standard for Lumberjacks teams. The Bemidji boys basketball team is in Class 4A Section 8, where the closest opponent is Brainerd … which is nearly two hours (and 100 miles) away. The section extends south to Twin Cities suburban schools such as Elk River (187 miles from Bemidji), Rogers (194) and St. Michael-Albertville (184).

The miles add up for northern Minnesota schools, but the teams take pride in their ability to make good use of the time.

“When you're in Moorhead, it starts when you're young,” said Spuds activities director Dean Haugo. “It starts when kids are typically in J.O. volleyball or youth soccer or youth basketball or hockey. So for us, it's ingrained. It’s part of the experience.

“If we have an in-town game or something that's close, that's the abnormal part of our schedule. Look at our speech team; I think they're in the metro area eight or nine weekends in a row.”

When Tuesday’s hockey game ended with the Spuds holding off Roseau 5-4, the Rams faced more than three hours on a bus to return home … where the Moorhead boys hockey team was coming the other direction after a 4-0 win at Roseau.

“The biggest part is we have an advantage in routine and our kids understand how to travel,” Haugo said. “They understand how to eat, how to pack, our coaches have places they like to stop. Each team is a little bit different. But rather than it being the anomaly it's the norm so for us, we don't really sweat it.”

Joel Hoover of KBUN radio in Bemidji is the play-by-play voice of Lumberjacks sports. He rode the bus with the team for Tuesday’s trip to Moorhead, which has become a luxury. Because of Covid protocols last year, he drove himself to games and covered 12,500 miles during the school year.

Haugo talked about a recent Moorhead graduate who was a multi-sport varsity athlete for five years and was aboard buses for 35,000 miles in that time.

But there are certain advantages to all that travel, including deals on hotel prices in the Twin Cities.

“We get a little fickle on hotels,” Haugo said. “We stay at the same hotel, they have to have certain things, there are certain breakfast expectations, and there are certain space expectations, beds need to be a certain size. We sound really finicky but on the hotel side, we're able to bring enough business where we get pretty good rates.”

With Moorhead located on the North Dakota border, Spuds teams are able to travel to schools in that state, but it’s not always simple.

“We do play in North Dakota, we play in South Dakota, our boys basketball team was just down at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls last week,” Haugo said. “One thing that's challenging for us is the North Dakota schools; in almost every sport they play far fewer games than we do, and they have heavy conference schedules. So we do play some but we would play more across the river if we could, just because it's the sensible thing to do. But the reality is we don't have that option in a lot of cases. So we embrace our opportunity and we embrace the travel.”

Northern schools are always thrilled when teams from the Twin Cities make the drive up north. But the reality in many cases is that the northern teams make the trek to the Twin Cities more often than the other way around.

“It can be difficult to get teams on our schedule,” said Lumberjacks boys basketball coach Steve Thompson. “So we're hoping that more teams will want to travel up to us and play in Bemidji.

“It's tough. A lot of teams travel to Bemidji and they say they can’t believe how far it is up here. But we put on so many miles from the time the boys are little. They start traveling from a young age. We drive to Moorhead and down to the Cities and it's a real commitment for a family in Bemidji.”

The Bemidji boys basketball players were glad that their game in Moorhead started at 6 p.m., an hour earlier than most games. They knew full well that the school day would start at 8:19 a.m. Wednesday.

“We got done early tonight and we’ll probably get home between 11 and midnight, which is about average,” said senior Caden Bolte. “And then we're expected to be in class the next day.”

There are routines aboard the buses. Kids play video games or cards or catch up on sleep. Teams usually order pizzas or sub sandwiches to be delivered at game’s end so dinner can be eaten on the road.

“A short trip for us is two hours,” Thompson said. “So we're two to four hours all the time, and it gives us plenty of time to bond as a team and the coaches get a chance to spend some time off the court together. So there are some positives, but there are some real challenges to it, as well.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]  

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