On Friday afternoon at 1:30, Palmer Ridge’s football team will end its school day and climb on a big yellow bus to begin a 232-mile ride for Saturday’s game at Rifle.
Palmer Ridge players will spend Friday night in a hotel while Rifle players slumber in their own beds.
Now, get this: Palmer Ridge is unbeaten and seeded No. 2 in the 3A state tournament. Rifle has lost twice and is seeded No. 10. Palmer Ridge, which earned its higher seed during a rugged regular season, is taking the long ride.
Tom Pulford, Palmer Ridge’s coach, declines to complain. He understands this is the norm in a state playoff system overseen by the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA).
“We’re the higher seed and we’re traveling,” Pulford said in a non-whiny voice. “We feel fortunate to play another week. ... We have an opportunity to play another game and we’re thankful.”
In 2015, Pine Creek traveled with a 37-game win streak and the No. 1 seed to Loveland, to face a 13th-seeded team that had been beaten five times. Pine Creek’s Eagles lost in the snow, 26-14.
The road loss prevented what might have been a four-peat for Pine Creek coach Todd Miller, who has won three of the past four 4A titles. Pine Creek and Rampart play Friday night at their home District 20 Stadium.
“I don’t know if it’s fair or not, but I don’t know if much in life is fair,” Miller said. “‘Another football game’ is what we say to our kids. Behind closed doors, what we say is, ‘Yeah, we’d want a home game.’”
Bert Borgmann works as CHSAA’s assistant commissioner. He emphasizes the playoff travel format was approved by vote of member schools.
“The theory has always been playoffs should be shared,” Borgmann said. “Everybody should have the opportunity to have that home game. And it’s about sharing. It’s a concept of sharing the expenses.”
Here’s what Borgmann means:
Let’s say a No. 16 seed upsets a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. If higher seeding trumped all else, the No. 16 seed could spend the next month traveling while running up transportation, restaurant and hotel expenses. Borgmann estimates the cost would run at least $20,000.
Last week, Palmer Ridge played at home, and Rifle traveled to Evergreen. That’s why, Borgmann says, Rifle will stay home for Saturday’s game.
Pulford emphasize that the travel rules have helped his program. In 2015, Palmer Ridge was a No. 11 seed and played host to higher-seeded Windsor.
The rules will help No. 14 seed Vista Ridge this week. Last week, Vista Ridge’s Wolves traveled to No. 3 seed Fruita Monument and delivered a 39-34 upset. This week, the Wolves play host to No. 6 Pueblo South, which played at home last week.
I understand the hassle of a long journey on a bus. I also understand the blessings of life on the road with your friends.
A long time ago, I was a (not very effective) center midfielder for a college soccer team in Nebraska, where our cruel, wise coach commanded us to run about 50 a miles a week in practice along those Midwestern flatlands.
Every other weekend, we took a bus ride to meet our opponent. At times, those rides stretched eight hours. These rides had nothing to do with seeding. We were following our schedule.
The rides never dragged. They provided a retreat from the chaos of campus life, a reward for all the hard labor at practice. I remember gazing out at vast, flat spaces, a strange sight for a young man raised in Colorado. I remember laughing with my teammates/comrades.
I remember good times.
On Friday, Pulford and his higher-seeded Palmer Ridge team will take a long bus trip to a town with a lower-seeded team.
“We have good sense of camaraderie on our team,” Pulford said. “We have players who enjoy being around each other. Being on a bus ride will help that bond continue to grow.”
Pulford looks forward to the ride.