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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on January 28th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 47 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 47

Bulldog for a day: Inside college team travel


The Bulldog basketball teams spend the hour ride home sharing in each other’s excitement and practicing their karaoke.

The fondest memories I have from my college sports experience came from the time spent traveling on the road. My senior season of softball, we had a total of 56 games—with only eight games at home; one of those travel trips included taking a red-eye flight from Phoenix to Hawaii (not that I am complaining). Traveling was a time for team bonding, Mad Lib games, and some impromptu concerts hosted by the team.

But traveling as a collegiate athlete does not come without its challenges. It’s no mystery that college athletes endure an intense training and competition schedule, not to mention keeping up with the demands of their schooling. Being an athlete at this level means many things; to the player, it means becoming an avid juggler of athletics and academics.

Preparing for away games is a methodical process—from the time spent studying the upcoming opponent to practice the day before a game. It means countless nights of staying in, catching up on assignments, packing for trips, and maybe getting some sleep.

The Sun recently spent time with the Hancock basketball teams on their away trip to Santa Barbara and learned that travel games are a mix of business and pleasure for the players and their coaches.

On the eve of battle

It’s the day before the Lady Bulldogs basketball team takes on the Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) Vaqueros in Santa Barbara.

Head Coach Cary Nerelli looks at the practice itinerary in his hands, the page worn from nervous folding. A 40-year veteran of basketball, he says the goal of a pre-game practice is to prepare the team for what they’ll see in the next game. While some coaches will dedicate weeks ahead of time to preparing for a single opponent, Nerelli says the Bulldogs take it one game at a time.

“It sounds cliché, but we as a team have talked about how we cannot afford to look past our next game,” Nerelli says. “We have to focus on one game at a time, and that’s the way we’re going to take the season.”

Over the course of two hours, the Bulldogs run through simulated defensive and offensive game situations.

“You girls have to communicate and cannot forget that,” Nerelli says as he stops one of the drills. “Santa Barbara is well coached, and we need to be on our toes defensively.”

The remainder of practice is executed with focus; the players aren’t talking about outside life. They’ll go home, review game film, and make sure their uniforms are ready for the next day—dreaming of a victory.

Game day

Game day arrives, and game faces are the result. The teams, sporting their blue travel gear, file on the charter to SBCC. The players grab their seats with headphones crammed in their ears; “pump up” music is key to a happy athlete.

Before we depart, the bus driver (who introduces herself as “Georgie”) delivers the standard safety and procedure speech, throwing in a humorous caution about the bathrooms.

The Lady Bulldogs said they like to walk into other gyms with confidence; they own the gym for that night.

“The bathroom is like a porta-potty on top of an oven, so remember whatever happens in there, stays in there,” she says.

The bus pulls away from Hancock at 1:45 p.m. It’s a one-hour journey to SBCC; the women’s game is at 5 p.m., followed by the men’s at 7 p.m. With a long day ahead, the players discuss classwork before withdrawing into their own worlds and thinking about the upcoming game.

While intended to be fun, there’s a definite business-like component to college sports. According to sophomore point guard DJ Valerio, traveling to games is time to prepare.

“It isn’t like high school where we goof around; it’s time to do business,” Valerio says. “On the way to games we are focusing on the things we need to do.”

The sophomore adds that she’s usually setting individual and team goals the team will discuss prior to the game.

Valerio has been playing basketball since fifth grade; she came to Hancock to challenge herself and for the experience of playing collegiate basketball.

“Taking a sport to the next level is something no one else in my family has done,” Valerio shares.

The point guard says the team travels one to two times a week; each excursion is four hours or more, depending on how far away they travel. The teams also travel together, and with the men’s games usually wrapping up around 9 p.m., this makes for long travel days. This is on top of three hours of practice daily as well as classes; Valerio says that some of the games mean athletes will miss night courses.

“Sometimes it is a drag to travel; you have to sit for three hours and then perform,” Valerio says. “But you have to overcome it and play.”

Sophomore guard Evelyn Robles adds to her teammate’s thought: “Once you’re on the bus, you’re ready to play, but you have to sit for a while. You have to keep your energy up.”

Robles, quiet and thoughtful, says she reviews what she learned at practice the whole week and reviews plays in her head on the way to games.

The other part of traveling that can make things challenging is playing in enemy territory, but both Bulldogs said confidence is the key to overcoming this challenge.

“I feel confident when we walk into another gym; we walk in like we own it,” Valerio says. “Because for that night, we do.”

For this game in particular, Robles says the team will need to execute their plays and talk to one another throughout the game.

Outside of the traveling pressures, student athletes face some stress from missing classes, which means they have to keep up with lectures, make up assignments, and prepare for tests.

“I do homework while traveling, especially during the weekdays when we have games because we get back late,” Valerio says.

“Just finding enough time to study is hard,” Robles adds. “It’s a lot to manage, but we make it work.”

Coach Nerelli is well aware of the stress student athletes face when trying to keep up.

“Staying current with their classes is tough,” Nerelli says. “For these kids, they face extra stress that cuts into homework time, and it is a burden.”

But the veteran coach says the other side to that coin is there are resources available to his athletes to ensure they achieve academic success.

“They have mandatory study halls twice a week, and tutors are available,” Nerelli says. “There are opportunities that they can take advantage of.”

As a coach, Nerelli also recognizes the added pressure of playing in another team’s gym.

“When you’re going into someone’s gym you’re going in already down in points,” Nerelli says. “I just try to emphasize to them to play the game we play and keep their composure. It doesn’t matter where we play; go in playing to win.”

The remainder of the bus ride to Santa Barbara goes by smoothly and quietly. As the bus nears the city college, Coach Nerelli checks in with each of his players: “How do you feel? What do you need to do?”

The players file off the bus. There’s anticipation in the air as the team approaches the locker room. Pregame preparation includes a talk about execution and accepting the battle before them.

“Nothing worthwhile is every easy, but accept that and play hard,” Nerelli says. His team responds with applause and energetic shouts.

As the team leaves the locker room and heads toward the gym, each member slaps the piece of tape posted over the door that says “beat Santa Barbara.”

Now it’s time for the Bulldogs to go out and take care of business.

A clean sweep

The Lady Bulldogs vs. The Vaqueros, January 25, 2014.

The Bulldogs do take care of business—twice. Both men’s and women’s teams come away with exciting, nail-biting wins in the last minutes of each game.

The Lady Bulldogs overcome an 11-point deficit in the second half of the game to shock SBCC with a 60-57 victory. Justine Roland leads the ’Dogs with 18 points and nine rebounds while Ali Rodriguez tallies 14 points and seven rebounds. Valerio contributes 11 points and seven rebounds on the game. The women move to 2-3 in league and are 12-8 on the season (as of press time).

The men’s team follows up with a 49-48 victory with the winning shot by Josh Varney in the last eight seconds of the game. Sophomore Varney finishes with 18 points and seven rebounds; freshman Andre Miller adds 18 points on the game.

According to Hancock Athletics, this is the first time in five years that both the men’s and women’s teams came up with back to back sweeps.

As we file back on the bus at 9:15 p.m., the all-business attitude is gone and the teams are ready to celebrate their exciting victories.

“We won!!” Ali Rodriguez yells, followed by cheerful cries from her teammates.

Before we head back to campus, the teams stop for dinner, and as I watch them order, I suddenly remember what ravenous appetites college athletes have.

“It’s pretty fun to get out of the house and hang with the team,” Valerio says.

On the bus home, Nerelli shares that one of the biggest strengths of this team is chemistry.

“This team is very close; there is a resilience to this group, they come to play,” he says. “Traveling is fun for the girls; they get to bond and enjoy each other’s company.”

The energy on the bus is palpable; both teams are talking, laughing, and doing what college athletes do: basking in the glory of their hard work. As we jump back onto Highway 101, the teams begin an impromptu sing-off. The women’s team simultaneously belts out a passionate rendition of “Drunk in Love” by Beyonce, while the men’s team opts for the slow-jams route with songs by Usher.

The bus pulls back into the parking lot at Hancock at 11 p.m. Despite the long day, the energy remains as the teams get off the bus to go home.

The teams will have one day of rest before they return on Monday to start the cycle all over, looking to take care of business against College of the Canyons and Moorpark later in the week.


Staff Writer Kristina Sewell felt like a college athlete again. Contact her at

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