By GARY SANTANIELLO
Published: December 17, 2013 6 Comments
The major collegiate athletic conferences have fractured and reconfigured in recent years as individual universities chased the additional millions in television revenue their football and basketball teams command.
The repercussions of the realignments, though, have been felt most by the so-called nonrevenue sports: soccer and volleyball in the fall; baseball, softball and lacrosse in the spring. The new geographic realities of the conferences have forced many of these teams into travel schedules befitting professional teams.
When it competed in the Big East Conference, the Connecticut volleyball team was bused to many of its conference road games. This season, its first in the new American Athletic Conference, the Huskies had four two-game conference trips in an eight-week span. Two of them were to Florida (for matches against Central Florida and South Florida) and to Texas (for matches against Houston and Southern Methodist, which required a five-hour bus trip in between matches).
“Travel was tough,” said Connecticut Coach Holly Strauss-O’Brien, whose team finished 14-19 over all and 5-13 in the conference. “Rough and tough.”
Notre Dame’s sports teams (with the exception of football, fencing and ice hockey) began competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference this fall. Formerly a member of the Big East, with conference opponents as close as Chicago, Fighting Irish teams now spend more time on airplanes than buses.
Its 2010 Division I national champion women’s soccer team, for example, flew to all its conference road games this season, including three multigame trips. In October, it flew to Miami for a single game on Oct. 6, returned to South Bend, Ind., after the game, then left three days later for a two-game trip to Virginia and Virginia Tech.
It concluded its regular season with a Thursday night game at Florida State on Oct. 31 that ended in a 2-1 loss in double overtime. To get to Tallahassee, Fla., the team left the day before, missing classes, to bus to Chicago to fly to Atlanta, where it caught a connecting flight to Tallahassee. After the game, the team bused four hours to Atlanta for a flight to Roanoke, Va., for an A.C.C. tournament quarterfinal game against Virginia Tech on Nov. 3.
Notre Dame lost, 2-1, in double overtime, then bused four hours to Dulles Airport outside Washington for the flight back to Chicago, arriving on campus at 3 a.m. Monday.
“And then the women had to go to class on Monday,” Notre Dame Coach Randy Waldrum said. “At times, it was an insane travel schedule.”
Perhaps no college team faced a more formidable schedule this fall than the West Virginia volleyball team. The only Big 12 Conference team east of the Mississippi River and 90 minutes from the closest major airport, W.V.U. had multigame trips to Texas (twice) and Kansas, and single conference matches at Iowa State and Oklahoma.
No wonder Coach Jill Kramer referred to Gate A89 at Pittsburgh International Airport as her team’s “home away from home.”
“At the same time,” she said, “I wouldn’t change our conference affiliation for anything. We needed a change in affiliation to take our program to the next level.”
The Mountaineers finished 0-16 in their first season in the conference last year, but this year they went 5-11 in the Big 12 and 20-13 over all.
For a variety of reasons, women’s teams have had it harder than their male counterparts. At West Virginia, the women’s soccer team competes in the Big 12, but there is no men’s soccer in the league, so the W.V.U. men play a regional schedule.
In the A.C.C., only 12 universities compete in men’s soccer, as opposed to 14 in women’s soccer, so the Notre Dame men’s team, which defeated Maryland, 2-1, for the national championship on Dec. 15, did not have to make two-game trips in conference play.
Many spring sports schedules have not yet been released, but there will be similar travel challenges for some teams in the far-flung conferences. The closest conference opponent for the Notre Dame baseball and softball teams is Maryland (which leaves the conference in 2014 for the Big Ten). And the West Virginia baseball team — the university does not field a softball team — will play three-game series on consecutive days at Texas Christian, Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas Tech in conference play. Last year, players on the baseball team missed 14 days of class because of its conference schedule alone.
Unlike their football and basketball counterparts, nonrevenue sports teams do not typically take charter flights, requiring bus rides to airports and long waits for connecting flights. The significant time spent in transit to distant conference opponents has ramifications on academics, practice schedules and getting the necessary rest and recovery time while on the road.
The UConn junior setter Sage Esposito said competing in the A.A.C., which stretches from Florida to Texas to New England, was difficult.
“It was more taxing on our bodies, which comes from the conference being so spread out,” she said.
The Notre Dame sophomore defender Katie Naughton welcomed the better competition in the A.C.C., which placed four teams among the top five in the final rankings and eight in the top 25.
“It was like we were in the N.C.A.A. tournament every weekend,” she said.
The downside, though, was the burden of the additional travel. “I’m not making any excuses, but you can’t travel that much and not have some consequences,” she said. “We pretty much had the kitchen sink thrown at us this year.”
West Virginia’s Kramer said that despite the increased travel, her team’s cumulative G.P.A. increased from 3.2 to 3.3 in its first year in the Big 12, although there were seven freshmen on the team.
“That’s an example of how committed we are not to let anything be an excuse,” she said. Still, she noted, the team missed 18 days of classes because of its travel schedule this year.
Although coaches like Notre Dame’s Waldrum believe it is possible to find scheduling solutions that mitigate the wear and tear on athletes, geography probably will remain some teams’ staunchest opponent.
Asked if travel will be even tougher next year, UConn’s Strauss-O’Brien said, “I can’t see how we can avoid it.”