COLUMBIA — The distance between Columbia College and the Gulf Shores Sportsplex is 799 miles, or 13 1/2 hours driving time.
The softball team boarded a coach bus at 7 a.m. Wednesday to play in the Gulf Coast Invitational in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The three-day tournament being held March 8-10 will feature 20 of the top NAIA softball teams.
The Gulf Coast Invitational features 20 teams from the NAIA. Friday and Saturday will be pool play, with Sunday featuring bracket play for the championship.
Columbia College - Pool 2
Columbia College vs. Spring Hill College, 5 p.m. Friday
Columbia College vs. Lindsey Wilson College, 7 p.m. Friday
Columbia College vs. Cumberland College, 1 p.m. Saturday
Columbia College vs. University of Houston-Victoria, 5 p.m. Saturday
For head coach Wendy Spratt and the rest of the team, it's just another weekend on the road.
The Cougars (3-1) were set to open their season two weeks ago at the Central Baptist University Meltdown in Conway, Arkansas but inclement weather made the trip impossible.
Last weekend, the Cougars made it down to Conway for the Central Baptist University Invitational where they won three of four, collecting wins against the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Louisiana State-Alexandria and William Jewell College.
The Cougars will have to get used to winning on the road considering they only play 10 games at home this season, compared to 18 away from Cougar Softball Field.
"It's just what we do," Spratt said, who doesn't mind the lopsided schedule and sees the road trips as team bonding adventures.
Spratt makes sure to change up room assignments every time the Cougars leave town.
"It's important for them to get to know each other as individuals, not just on the field," he said.
Marli Hayes, a junior infielder, feels the time spent together has been beneficial to team chemistry and also just plain fun.
"Last weekend on the way home we were all playing poker and singing Laffy Taffy," Hayes said with a laugh.
The other players don't mind all the traveling as much either; at least they get to play.
"It's nice to play this time of the year, obviously we can't here (in Columbia)," sophomore outfielder Hanna Taylor said.
With snow still on the ground in Columbia, the Cougars have been practicing inside the Southy Building on campus on the small turf field directly outside of Spratt's office.
The extra time spent on the road together has strengthened the players' bonds as friends and softball teammates. It's the reason the majority of the team can be found a half hour before practice stretching, taking batting practice, or kicking a soccer ball in their temporary practice facility.
Spratt hopes the chemistry developed in the hotel room and on the bus will translate on the field. After finishing tied for first in the American Midwest Conference in 2010 and 2011, the Cougars finished fourth last season. This season, the Cougars hope to get back to their winning ways.
"Our goal every year is to win the conference and a national title," Spratt said.
The team sees the road heavy schedule as a chance to prove themselves. The Cougars know they will be getting opponents' best efforts in front of their home crowds.
"You know the other team is gunning for you," Hayes said about playing on the road. "But we have a good support system."