On the Road They Go

On the Road They Go

By Ken Ryan

Taking ground balls off hardwood floors. Twelve hour bus trips. Studying for midterms in a hotel in Arkansas.

Sound like fun? Doubtful. But to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee baseball club, it’s all part of the reality that is being a northern-climate school that plays more than one-third of its entire schedule in the South against talented competition to start each season before playing a single home game.

“It’s a very tough thing,” says UWM head coach Scott Doffek. “But there’s no way to offset Milwaukee weather in February or March.”

In 2010, the Panthers first 20 of their regular season-scheduled 54 games are on the road, a stretch that began with the team’s opening four-game set at Arkansas State on February 26 in Jonesboro, Ark.

Not only did that series represent the first game action for UWM, but it was the first time the team took to playing outdoors all spring as snow and frigid temperatures keep the Panthers inside the Klotsche Center for preseason practice.

While indoor workouts that include fielding ground balls off a floor designed for basketball and pitching off a replicated mound are the only option to prepare the Panthers for the season, Doffek and senior first baseman Ben Long acknowledge that it puts UWM at a competitive disadvantage against teams that are more game-ready.

“Southern school teams not only have been practicing outdoors for weeks, they also usually have a few scrimmages against other teams under their belt as well,” Long notes.

Not surprisingly – though in close fashion – UWM dropped all four games to Arkansas State.

The rigors of the road

In all, the team will travel more than 6,100 miles round-trip for away games before traveling just a couple to their own at Henry Aaron Field.

Loading up a coach bus on Thursday mornings with equipment and luggage and heading off to college towns such as Clarksville, Tennessee, is an all too common practice for the program.

For a weekend nonconference series, the Panthers depart on Thursday around noon and usually arrive around Midnight local time. The team will stop along the way for dinner at eateries such as Ryan’s Steakhouse Buffet in Marion, Illinois, where the club stopped on trips to both Clarksville and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

To pass time on the bus rides, players will sleep, attempt to do homework, watch the movie that’s playing on the monitors or socialize over cards or cribbage.

While most rides don’t exceed 12 hours, Long recalls one long affair.

“When I was a freshman, we drove 16 hours to Shreveport, Louisiana, to play a single game,” he remembers. “And when we got there, the game was cancelled.”

Administrative staff faces challenges too

For Chris Zills, the UWM Sports Information Director in charge of baseball, the time on the bus is a time for work. For a weekend series, Zills will arrive to the office Thursday around 11:00 a.m. after doing house chores that he would otherwise get to if he’d be around for the weekend.

He’ll then put in around three hours of pre-series work on the bus as well as taking notes during the contest and writing the post-game story afterward.

“You try to the do the best you can knowing because it is all part of the job,” he says.

Student-athlete obstacles

Once the team arrives at the hotel, they are divided into rooms decided on by coaches. Usually, veteran players and underclassmen are paired up as a way to get to know one another.

Players usually will opt to hit the books at odd hours. Sophomore starting pitcher Kyle Schmidt says the team is used to trying to stay caught up on their academics while on the road.

“It’s a little tougher doing homework on the bus, but there is enough down time where we can get things done,” he says, adding that many players opt for online classes to compensate for the time spent away from campus.

Parents also feel the effects of the team playing most of its games out of Wisconsin. More than 80 percent of the players are originally from the state so many parents have limited opportunities to see their sons play. Schmidt says that his father last year made a few trips to the South but hasn’t been able to make it work this year. His mother attended March 19-21 in Manhattan, Kansas, only because she took off work a year in advance.

The Panthers have responded well since the opening series and have a 4-5 overall record. The road game odyssey ends March 31 when the Panthers open up Henry Aaron Field against UW-Parkside.

Weather pending, of course.

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