COLUMBIA — For the Rock Bridge girls basketball team, Interstate 70 is a familiar sight.
That’s because the Bruins spend hours upon hours traveling across the state of Missouri, even sometimes Illinois, just to play high school basketball games.
Class 5, District 9 semifinals
Rock Bridge (20-5) vs. Smith-Cotton (15-10)
WHEN: 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Jefferson City High School
But don’t think the Bruins are complaining about the situation. Senior Taylor Payne said she enjoys racking up the miles on the team bus.
“I think the traveling has been good,” Payne said. "Someone will be blasting music or telling stories.”
This season, Rock Bridge has played 18 of its 25 regular-season games away from home. The Bruins' extensive travel plans are the result of not belonging to a conference.
The Bruins used to be a part of the North Central Missouri Conference, but the disparity in terms of size of school and athletes became too much, and Rock Bridge decided to split from the NCMC.*
Bruins coach Jill Nagel said she feels somewhat helpless when it comes to scheduling.
“We are at the mercy of the other schools,” Nagel said. “A lot of times we may have to play a St. Louis school one night and a Kansas City school the next night, just to fill our schedule.”
The Bruins are making the best of the situation, though.
Payne and her teammates use the time spent traveling as an opportunity to learn about each other. The long bus rides give the players time to delve into each other’s private lives, while also staying focused on basketball.
“We play cards occasionally, tell stories or talk about our plans,” Payne said. "We’ll even talk about someone’s boyfriend, but normally towards the end, we talk more about the game."
The Bruins spend a lot of time together, even staying at hotels when games run late. Earlier this season while competing in the Webster Winter Challenge in Webster Groves, the team spent a few days at a Holiday Inn. For sophomore Hannah Dressler,* the experience was a blast.
“It was fun," Dressler* said. “We all stayed in just a few rooms and just talked about things, anything. We went over scouting reports in the hotel and ate food together. We even had a curfew.”
All the time spent together on the road hasn’t hurt the Bruins on the court. The Bruins capped off their regular season Thursday with a victory over Helias Catholic, giving them 20 wins on the season. Bruins coach Jill Nagel said she thinks the constant traveling keeps the girls’ priorities in order.
“It definitely helps,” Nagel said. “I think it helps with their focus because this is a very academic group, and they are forced to do time management. They have tests and homework and must get their work done before the games.”
Senior Emily Holt said she can sense the team’s intensity rise the closer the team bus gets to its destination.
“We start focusing in,” Holt said. “We put in our iPods and get pumped for the game.”
The schedule can be exhausting, but Nagel sees advantages, too.
“We are able to schedule a tougher schedule because we are not limited to playing conference games,” Nagel said. “If you are in a conference you don’t get a say in your strength of schedule, conference-wise.”
The Bruins are approaching the Class 5, District 9 tournament, which begins Wednesday in Jefferson City. Nagel said this is where the tough regular season schedule begins to pay off.
“You get to the playoffs like we are now, and you’re not going to have any weak teams,” Nagel said. “You’re going to have to win six tough games so you might as well be prepared for it.”
If Rock Bridge is successful at its district tournament, it will advance to state sectionals.*
Perhaps then it will be time to give the bus driver a raise.