The Wellborn High School football coach said his team has gone to just about every corner of the state, rattling off places like Limestone, Montgomery, DeKalb and Blount Counties. And tonight, he’ll add Red Bay in northwestern Alabama, 175 miles from Wellborn, to that list when the Panthers take on the Tigers in the first round of the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s football playoffs.
“This is nothing new for us,” said Smith on the upcoming four-hour road trip. “We’ve gone just about everywhere.”
Journeying across the state in the name of football has become commonplace for schools, coaches and fans accustomed to their teams making playoff runs in November. Weaver High School will make a three-hour trek today to Hamilton in Marion County, while Piedmont and Saks high schools will host their own long-travelers from Winfield in Marion County and Good Hope High School in Cullman County tonight.
An uneven distribution
Ron Ingram, the director of communications for the Alabama High School Athletic Association, said the association tries its best to create the least amount of travel for matchups by separating the state into north and south brackets. But the south and north of Alabama aren’t equal in school density, Ingram said. Almost two-thirds of high schools in Alabama are located north of Clanton, meaning regional divisions in the lower half of the state are much larger geographically, and creep well past the state’s median line.
An extreme example this year of long-distance travel for the opening round is the Handley High School Tigers, who today will make a five-hour trek to Mobile to face UMS-Wright Preparatory School.
“We’re going as far as they let you go in the state of Alabama,” said coach Mike Battles, who is making his third trip with Handley to UMS-Wright in five years. Handley defeated the Mobile school in the semi-finals of the 2011 playoffs on its way to a state championship.
“We got a lot of guys still around from that team,” Battles said. “We know how to handle these trips.”
But while long trips during the regular season can be scheduled well in advance, things get more complicated in the playoffs, when schools have less than a week to accommodate travel plans.
“But they expect to be in this position,” said Joe Dyar, superintendent of Calhoun County Schools. “The plan the whole season is to go far in the playoffs and even play in the state championships.”
It means from the beginning of August, teams are doing everything they can to raise and save money for a potential big game in November.
Dyar said Friday’s travel will cost Wellborn $6,100 and Weaver will pay $6,600.
Dyar said boosters are a big help to the programs, and money reserved for field trips will often help take teams to away games.
Not just the team
But finding a bus on the first Friday of the playoffs can be like finding a needle in the haystack, said Jared Holland, the band director at Weaver High School. It isn’t, after all, just the team that is trying to find transportation across the state using charter busses, but the supporting cast as well, including fans, cheerleaders and the musicians.
“It’s like a race against the clock and against everybody else to find transportation,” said Holland. It took the band director until Wednesday afternoon to nail down two buses for the band to make the trip to Hamilton today, at a cost of $2,000.
“We try a lot of times to get money through fundraising and booster groups, but we didn’t get a lot this year,” Holland said, noting he was in competition with a lot of other schools in the area. Should the Bearcats advance to the next round of the playoffs, Holland said, it should be a little easier to nail down bus plans earlier in the week.
And then there are the fans who want to go to the away games, often having to get a jump on traffic during school hours.
Battles said he expects Handley supporters to make a good showing in Mobile. Today marks the end of the school’s first trimester, so no classes are scheduled, meaning there’s ample time for students to make the long trip.
At Calhoun County Schools, Dyar said teachers will likely dismiss students earlier to make arrangements to go to games, and some schools will arrange for buses to bring fans to the games at a small cost.
“This is all part of the curriculum,” Dyar said. “It’s important for these youngsters because it’s about school pride and community pride and building character.”
Avoiding long trips
Ingram said that a few years ago when gas prices climbed as high as $4 per gallon, the association made neighboring regions play each other to cut down on expenses. The move wasn’t appreciated by most schools, he said.
“They liked more of a variance in the matchups,” Ingram said. “They wanted to see different teams.”
Long trips can be exhausting for teams, Ingram said, but a win can help even the longest late-night ride home a little easier. Battles said he’s counting on that when the Tigers make their way back to Roanoke with an estimated arrival of around 3 a.m. Saturday.
But the best way to avoid a long, costly trip, Ingram said, is to win more during the season.
“The trick is to get the top seeds,” Ingram said. “That way you don’t have to play away.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.
AHSAA football playoff first-round games:
All games kick off at 7 p.m.
Berry at Donoho
Wadley at McKenzie
Woodland at Tanner
Sheffield at Ranburne
Wellborn at Red Bay
Weaver at Hamilton
Winfield at Piedmont
Good Hope at Saks
Hillcrest at Central of Clay County
Kate Duncan Smith DAR at Jacksonville
Ardmore at Munford
Handley at UMS-Wright
Cleburne County at Madison County
Lincoln at J.O. Johnson
Tuscaloosa County at Oxford