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Saddling up: what travel looks like for Cowgirl basketball

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OSU forward Natasha Mack prepares to shoot a free throw during Oklahoma State's women's basketball game against Kansas State on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater.

Of all the things college students can do at 3 a.m., not many would do someone else’s laundry.

Allison Ray, a graduate assistant with the Oklahoma State women’s basketball team who is studying business administration, said she remembers doing so after returning from road games when she was an undergraduate student manager.

“We have a manager that will stay and do laundry from the whole trip,” Ray said. “I don’t do laundry anymore, but there were times we’d get back late from a bus trip and I’d be up here at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning finishing up laundry just so our kids had their practice loops for the next day of practice in case they didn’t have their second loop in their locker here.”

Laundry is one small part of the logistics required for a successful trip. Many people whose names aren’t called when starting lineups are announced put in a lot of work to get the players to whichever arena they are playing in next.

The process begins well in advance. Managers could plan a trip even when there is a home game to played first.

Planning meals is one of the first steps. That process begins a week in advance. The managers will find restaurants in their destination city and place orders the day before the team departs. Ray said the managers try to find restaurants that aren’t chains so everyone doesn’t get tired of eating the same thing.

“Usually, the night before games, we’ll try to eat at a nice steakhouse,” Ray said. “Post-game meal, we try to stick to a sandwich shop. Again, mom and pops are what we try to stick to, just so our kids don’t get tired of… anything that we have in Stillwater.”

Depending on the time of the game, the Cowgirls sometimes use a hotel’s complimentary breakfast, though they will take it elsewhere to eat rather than take over the dining area.

Ray said the Cowgirls usually stick to hotels they are familiar with and know can accommodate them. The team needs enough rooms to house not only the players and coaches but also several others.

“We’ll have our radio people, our support staff, so that’s our trainer,” Ray said. “Strength coach, (sports information director). We usually try to bring two managers, maybe three on a bus trip if we can fit it in, if it doesn’t add too many more dollars to the end of the budget. Our photographer/videographer, she’s on there as well. And then sometimes, depending on donors, we might bring two donors, we might bring one donor, we might bring four, it just kinda depends… So, we could be anywhere from 35 to 45 people.”

In addition to bedrooms, the team also books a meeting room in every hotel. The Cowgirls can use this for meetings, film study, stretching or meals.

The journey requires more than transporting people. Equipment and supplies of all kinds need to make the trip, as well. Everyone from managers to players has specific checklists showing what needs to be packed.

The players receive their uniforms the night before so they can pack them in their personal bags along with whatever personal items or schoolwork they have. The managers always pack three or four extra jerseys along with extras of anything else players might need, whether it is socks, shoes or shoelaces.

The athletic trainer brings tape, but the managers bring more in case they need to use it to set up a fake court inside a hotel meeting room, though Ray said they haven’t had to do so this year. They usually rely on the host team for cleaning supplies, but they will bring hand towels for practice.

The managers typically pack two cases each of water and Gatorade, plus a cooler full of each. They also bring snacks for the players. If a player gets hungry late at night, she can text a manager and someone will bring her a granola bar or crackers.

Ray said it usually doesn’t take long to get everything loaded.

“For the most part, everything’s already been packed,” Ray said. “We’ll do a big dump at the beginning of the year, put all of the new stuff in there, new socks, new sports bras, new practice gear they get. We’ll make sure the sizes are good in there, but then for the most part we’ll usually pack either (the night before) or (the morning of), make sure we have the right color jersey in the bag, but it doesn’t take more than 30 minutes to load up. It’s pretty short and quick, we’ve got it down. Every manager has their own little specific role, they know what to do.”

She said they pack everything in her car so she can drive it to the airport. In all, they pack two suitcases, a cooler, a snack box and four cases of water and Gatorade. When they are coming home, they add a duffel bag with dirty laundry. Ray said it is like playing Tetris in the back of her car, but they have a system and make it work.

Thanks to their checklists and constant repetition, the Cowgirls’ managers rarely make mistakes, but they aren’t immune to an occasional error.

“We’ve forgotten our snack box a few times,” Ray said. “I think maybe once or twice we had the wrong color jersey in the bag, so we were really hoping no one forgot theirs because it would have been a nightmare. We try not to forget a whole lot. We’ve done this enough times now… we shouldn’t be missing anything.”

The Cowgirls aren’t only athletes; they are students, too. When they aren’t playing or preparing, they have homework. Junior forward Natasha Mack said finding time usually isn’t an issue.

“We have a pretty good amount of time,” Mack said. “We have it in-between eating, before going to shoot around, after shoot around, so it’s a pretty good amount of time to do homework.”

The Cowgirls often have dedicated study hall time, but they can’t always get everything done during that time. They might have to work during what little free time they have or while on the plane or bus.

They don’t have Wi-Fi on the plane, so anything requiring it must be done another time. Junior forward Abbie Winchester said bus trips have another set of problems.

“Whenever we drive, it’s hard to do homework on the road because you’re sitting on a bus,” Winchester said. “If you’re leaving the game, you’re all smelly, and depending on the vibe, either everyone’s really excited and you don’t want to do homework, or everyone’s miserable and you don’t want to do homework.”

Trips aren’t limited to weekends, so the Cowgirls often have to miss class during the season. It is easy to fall behind. To overcome this, Winchester said she often visits her professors during their office hours to get help, but it is challenging.

“It’s a little bit of a struggle, especially in the spring, just because you’re missing the first few classes,” Winchester said. “Luckily, it’s normally the easier stuff, but you’re missing a lot of the basic stuff for that class. So, sometimes it can be a little hard to catch up, but it just depends on the class.”

It helps to have professors who are willing to accommodate the players’ travel requirements. Winchester said she has been fortunate to have professors willing to help, but it isn’t always that way.

Sophomore forward Bryn Gerlich said some professors need to be persuaded.

“I have had a few professors who have been a little unwilling to help at first, but if you’re persistent and show them you really want to do well in the class, they usually come around,” Gerlich said. “A lot of times, it’s whenever it’s a higher-level class that they get a little bit more, at least from my experience, they’ve gotten a little more stiff about it, and I have to really show them that I’m not just an athlete who’s trying to take the easy way out. But for the most part, I’ve been really fortunate with the professors I’ve had.”

Although the Cowgirls usually get time to do homework, they don’t get time for much else. Trips typically involve a tight schedule. Every hour is accounted for, and the players don’t get much free time. When the Cowgirls play a Wednesday night game, they usually go to class Tuesday, travel that evening, play Wednesday and go straight home that night so they can be back in class Thursday.

This means the players don’t usually get to enjoy the sights in the cities they travel to, but coach Jim Littell said there are exceptions.

“When we went to the Virgin Islands, it was an important trip for our kids to see some things that they’ve never seen before,” Littell said. “That usually comes in the nonconference part of the schedule where you allot some time. When we went to Florida, we went to Disney on our off day. Nonconference opportunities, we try to allow them to have some fun and see some things they normally wouldn’t see.”

Transporting a team from place to place has its challenges. Ray said making sure everyone is coordinating and understands what to do is the main challenge. They do it often enough that everyone generally knows the process, but some trips are different from others.

The Cowgirls usually fly on a charter plane, but not when they went to the Virgin Islands. Ray said flying commercial presented additional challenges.

“I never realized how lucky we are when we fly (charter),” Ray said. “It’s always a hassle (flying commercial) because we have to check all of our bags. We had to pack an additional manager bag with three sets of uniforms in there. We had to bring extra everything, more so than normal. We brought some extra gear to give the people that were helping us out there from the hotel staff to our bus drivers. Then, coming back to the airports, you gotta tag all of our bags. We take additional bags, gotta make sure they fit under the weight limit. Then, getting those bags off of the plane and back into our personal area is also tricky to make sure we have all of our bags, we didn’t miscount, we aren’t leaving one there.”

When the team returns to Stillwater, the managers unload the equipment and drain the coolers. From there, they turn their focus to preparing for the next game. If it is at home, they will take out any essential supplies they will need. If another road game is next, they usually leave packed everything they can.

After that, someone has to do the laundry.

The average fan usually doesn’t notice the managers. Their names aren’t listed on the roster. Seniors are recognized during Senior Night activities, but not many in the crowd know anything about them or what they do.

They don’t do it for recognition. For Ray, it is all about the team.

“Our first priority is the girls and their success,” Ray said. “Anything we can do to make their lives any easier is what we try to do.”

Sports.ed@ocolly.com