Some of the upperclassmen on the Gilford girls’ basketball team enjoy their post game meals at McDonald’s following a road trip to Berlin earlier this month. Clockwise from left to right: Abby Harris, Molly Dietrich, Sarah Veazey, Hayley Jakubens and Kelsey Buckley. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
January 28, 2013BERLIN – "The kids wait all year to go to McDonald's."
Rick Forge smiles when he says this, kind of a half smirk that proves he's both kidding and hinting at some semblance of truth. It's his team's longest bus trip of the winter, 108 miles from door to door. 108 miles on a school bus is an eternity.
"Any time you get to do something together, it's team bonding," the Gilford High School girls' basketball coach explains.
This statement is true, though this particular trip may be one his players could live without. After all, visiting the North Country on a Tuesday night in the middle of January isn't exactly inviting. On this particular night, the temperature will drop well into single digits in Berlin, with wind gusts blowing newly-fallen snow around at the most inopportune moments. The quick walk from the bus to the Berlin High School gymnasium would not be a problem on most nights. Most nights. But that walk has turned into a gallop, or even a full on sprint for some ill-prepared winter dressers. It's winter in New Hampshire, the very definition.
1:45 P.M. – Gilford High School
"You don't know what you're getting yourself into."
Paige Laliberte and her fellow Gilford seniors are old pros at this by now. Taking the bus for away games is old hat, especially when you've played three sports since your freshman year.
"We hit a stop sign once," she recalls fondly. "Bent it back. That was a fun trip."
The entire Gilford girls' basketball program (JV and varsity) gathers in the lobby outside the school's gymnasium, preparing for the arrival of the school bus. It's the first day back from a long weekend, and early dismissal has the Golden Eagles chirping with excitement.
They aren't particularly looking forward to the long ride ahead, but getting out of school just a few minutes early somewhat makes up for the traveling inconvenience.
2:09 P.M. – Route 3 Bypass, Gilford
The journey north has officially begun, with the team – 23 players on this particular day according to Forge's headcount – piled on the bus and mentally preparing for the journey ahead. The coaching staff (Forge and JV coach Chuck Kenney), along with team manager Charles Jenot, sits up front, with a few rows of seats vacant before members of the JV squad occupy the middle section. The varsity is in back, with the seniors holding down the prime real estate in the very last rows.
"There's definitely kind of a pecking order," says Laliberte of the seating arrangement. "We always claim the back."
The bus meets up with Route 93 in Tilton, passing the Tanger Outlets and the Tilt'n Diner before hopping northbound for a long stretch of highway.
2:50 P.M. – Route 93 North, Plymouth
"It's our time to catch up with each other."
Abby Harris will eventually post a double double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, but for now, she's chatting about her experiences with road trips as a GHS athlete.
"We share snacks, get to gossip and that kind of thing. We see each other in school obviously and then at practice and games but these long trips are nice to be able to just relax and see what's going on with each other."
As Harris talks, a pack of her teammates belt out a One Direction song near the back of the bus, growing louder as more and more voices join in the chorus.
3:15 P.M. – Route 93 North, Lincoln
"Part of a tree came through the window on the bus one time."
Molly Dietrich isn't the biggest fan of the trip that night. Ideally, the team would play in Berlin on a Friday night, as was originally scheduled. But poor weather earlier in the month meant the schools would be forced to postpone. The next available mutual open date came on a Tuesday night.
"These trips are good for team bonding but this one would definitely be better on a Friday," Dietrich, a senior point guard, explains. "Tuesday nights we have homework. I know girls do some work on the bus but that can be pretty hard."
Kayla Orton has plenty of school work to keep her busy. The junior forward will have her hands full during the lengthy excursion.
"Tomorrow I have a big project due and I'm not sure I'll have enough time to work on it so kind of a little stressful right now," she says. "I like long bus rides but I like them less when I have stuff due the next day."
Dietrich says that every team bus is different. The soccer buses have a slightly different dynamic than the basketball buses, etc. She recalls a memorable trip a few years back where the bus caught part of a tree and some of that tree found a new home inside the bus.
"I remember looking over and there were leaves and branches just coming at us. The window was open."
3:40 P.M. – Route 93 North, Franconia
"The way home is the fun part. Everyone's hyped up after the game."
Sarah Veazey saunters to the front of the bus. After being awoken from her slumber, she plops herself down with a blanket over her head.
"I know people try and do their homework but it's hard to focus on the bus when you have so many people to talk to and so many things to distract you," the senior says.
The mood on the bus is positive, lots of talking and laughing. Forge and Kenney chat about fishing, undoubtedly one of their favorite subjects.
4:10 P.M. – Route 3, Twin Mountain Airport
"I thought I left my phone at a McDonald's once."
Brid Fillion tells her story with conviction. On a previous road trip, she panicked when she couldn't find her cell phone after a stop at McDonald's. The junior guard looked everywhere, enlisting teammates (Laliberte claims to have dug through the garbage) to find the essential device. But just when the trail went cold, it was discovered to have still been on the bus the whole time.
"Yeah…kind of embarrassing," she admits sheepishly.
Not to Fillion's surprise, several teammates had already offered up that story as a memorable one in the list of road trips. It turns out, high school kids don't forget very easily.
4:15 P.M. – Route 115, Jefferson
"Well…it's definitely not my favorite thing."
Cassidy Bartlett has had quite the rookie campaign with the basketball program. The guard has earned a starting spot, and her court vision has been a big asset to the lineup. She doesn't, however, enjoy spending two-plus hours in a school bus.
"I'm definitely a little stressed," she explains. "The amount of homework I have is ridiculous. And when you try and write on the bus it gets all shaky."
Nonetheless, the freshman is getting well versed in life on the ride. It's a beast of a different kind, traveling to play high school sports in New Hampshire compared to other places. Some schools in southern New England travel no more than 20 minutes to play road games. New Hampshire doesn't have that luxury, especially smaller schools which find themselves spread throughout the state.
The trip home can vary, depending largely on the results. A playoff loss in a place like Fall Mountain can lead to silence for the majority of the ride. The players on the Gilford team admit a loss can quiet the trip home, but probably not for too long.
"It depends on how we played I think," junior Becky Zakorchemny says. "I think if it was a close game and it was really no one's fault, we tend to get over it pretty quickly."
"I feel like eventually we all get over it no matter what," Bartlett chimes in.
"If we win, the bus is usually pretty pumped up and people are social," Fillion offers.
"But if we don't then we're thinking 'I traveled two and a half hours just to lose," Orton counters.
4:30 P.M. – Berlin High School
The gymnasium at Berlin High School is quiet when the team arrives, save for a few JV players shooting jump shots on the court. It's a relatively large gym, with bleachers pulled out on one side. The banners on the wall show the school's rich hockey tradition, though the Mountaineers just this year were moved from Division I to Division III on the ice.
The Gilford junior varsity heads right to the locker room, changing for their 5 p.m. start time with the host Mountaineers. The varsity team heads right to the bleachers, setting up shop near the top.
Kenney gets his team ready to keep their undefeated streak alive, as the Eagles enter the night a perfect 10-0 on the season. Freshman Mariah Nelson scores the first points of the night, as Gilford makes it 11 straight with a 44-34 win.
6:20 P.M. – Berlin High School hallway, pregame meeting
"There are two facts from Friday night's game: we got outrebounded…and people were afraid to shoot the ball in the fourth quarter."
Forge is speaking in the hallway around the corner from the gym, preparing his Eagles for what they hope will be a rebound from the previous outing. That was a 33-27 loss to Belmont, a game in which Gilford made just one field goal in the decisive fourth quarter.
Forge goes over several particulars, talking about how to best break Berlin's 1-3-1 defense. He also refers to Berlin's number 13 (Jillian Williams) as their best shooter.
It was shortly before this final pregame huddle that Fillion discovered a disconcerting fact: she only had one shoe. The junior did manage to track a pair down in time for the varsity game, borrowing them from a JV player, but that didn't stop Forge from giving her a gentle jabbing prior to pregame warm-ups.
"Hey Brid, where's your shoes," the veteran coach says with a smile to Fillion, wearing just her socks on the hallway floor.
8:02 P.M. – Berlin High School parking lot
"And it's officially 5 degrees out."
The Eagles lead from start to finish, pulling away late in the third quarter to earn a 52-33 victory over the Mountaineers. It's Berlin's 11th loss in a row, with Gilford moving to 7-4 on the season thanks to its trip to the North Country.
While some of the chatter on the bus is about the win, most of it is centered on the impending visit to McDonald's. That's because the bus will be stopping in Gorham, where the 23 players and coaches will file off and into the fast food paradise, making their seasonal, or sometimes bi-seasonal, visit to the golden arches.
"The stops at McDonald's are always a highlight," says Harris.
8:30 P.M. – McDonald's, Gorham
"We need to order more food."
The whole thing happens like a flash. The team goes in, orders their food, sits down, eats and gets ready to get back on the bus. But while it's happening, almost the entire team comments on how much food has been ordered.
"It's a long trip back," one of them says. "We need to stock up."
And as the bus closes its doors and exits the parking lot, the Eagles prepare themselves for the long ride back to Gilford. The win and the fast food make for a successful trip, despite the amount of time spent on the road. And while One Direction has been replaced by Taylor Swift as the artist of choice to croon, everything happens much the same as the bus heads through the sleepy towns of the North Country, back through the Notch and into the Lakes Region. When the team rolls back into the parking lot at GHS just after 11 p.m., there's a lot full of cars waiting for them. It's been a long day, nearly 10 hours since school dismissal. But trips like this are what high school is all about.
"Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road." – Jack Kerouac