ROAD TRIPS: Schedule makers or schedule breakers?

Something that can generally be so much fun—a road trip—is the bane of  coaches at any level. Not only is his or her team not playing in familiar surroundings in front of friendly fans, for the most part, there’s always more things to consider when a team hits the road:

• How long with the road trip take?

• How will the team get enough rest after a long trip?

• How will the team respond to a hostile environment?

• How are the physical conditions of the opposing team’s field/gymnasium/locker rooms?

• Where does the team stay (if it’s an overnight trip) and eat?

There are athletics directors and, in the bigger programs, travel secretaries to take care of the last question—and any other logistical questions that may arise—but most coaches fret over the first four enough to give themselves gray hairs.

Road trips, especially in the heart of a schedule, can make or break a team’s season. Allen Sharpe and Tanya Ray face exactly that scenario at the University of Arkansas at Monticello right now.

The Boll Weevils and Cotton Blossoms must travel to Northwestern Oklahoma State University and Southwestern Oklahoma State University this week, and Southeastern Oklahoma State University at East Central University the following week. Of course, the teams will return to Monticello between trips but all together, UAM basketball teams will have traveled (according to Google Maps) 1,698 miles and spent 27 hours, 35 minutes in a team bus just getting to their destinations over the next two weekends.

“There is no way to get around it,” UAM men’s coach Sharpe said. “We have to go out there. I’m not sure why we have to take both road trips back-to-back. That’s four games in a row on the road and four out of state. Even if we are in the same conference it’s tough to go on the road. And it’s even tougher to go out of state.”

Especially tough in the Weevils’ case. Now standing 13-6 for the season and 6-5 in Great American Conference play, these next two weeks could mean the difference between a great season or a season which might have been. If UAM happens to win all four games, the Weevils’ will be near the top of the league standings heading into the final five games of 2013-14—with a real shot at advancing to the postseason. If all four games go the other way, Sharpe can look back on these two road trips as the turning point in a season which began with a 10-2 mark, an eight-game winning streak and a 4-1 start to GAC play.

“I don’t think that there is one more challenging than the others,” Sharpe said of the next four games. “We have not won at Northwestern or Southeastern. Northwestern was in last just the other day and beat Southwestern, who is in first (a 67-66 victory on Saturday at Southwestern). There is not a whole lot of difference in any of us. All four games are winnable and we know that. However, if we don’t play, they are capable of being four losses.”

Even with that upset, Southwestern Oklahoma goes into this weekend’s play one-half game ahead of East Central. The Bulldogs are 8-2 in the GAC, 11-5 overall; ECU is 8-3 and 11-6. Northwestern and Southeastern, meanwhile, are both 3-7 in league play. The Rangers are 6-10 for the season; the Savage Storm are 5-10.

Only Southwestern was able to handle the Boll Weevils the first time through the conference schedule. The Bulldogs bested UAM 74-65 back in November 2013 but the Weevils downed the other three Oklahoma schools as part of the eight-game winning streak. UAM defeated Northwestern 71-61, East Central 76-71 and Southeastern 65-57.

On the women’s side, Ray’s young Blossoms have taken their lumps thus far. UAM, which only has one senior on its roster, is 1-10 in the GAC and 5-12 for the season. The Blossoms are currently mired in an eight-game losing streak and have already lost to three of the four schools they’ll be playing the next two weekends.

An 82-80 overtime win over Northwestern has been the lone bright spot for the UAM women in conference action thus far. That came two days after Southwestern pretty much had its way in a 118-88 Blossom loss. East Central also downed UAM 66-54 and Southeastern topped the Blossoms 75-61.

“These next four games will be tough for us having to leave the state in back-to-back weeks,” said Ray, who is in her third season as head coach of the Blossoms. “In the past we have been fortunate to have them in separate semesters. They will be important games for us and I feel like if we can go 2-2 on this swing we can position ourselves to be in the conference tournament race.”

Currently, UAM sits in the cellar of the league standings and out of the GAC Championship Tournament picture. Only eight teams advance from the regular season into the postseason tournament and, even with Northwestern and Southern Nazarene University being ineligible for GAC postseason play because of provisional status within the league, the Blossoms would have to finish ahead of at least one other team to continue their season past the regular-season finale on March 1.

Both coaches agreed the tough four-game road trip looming ahead of their teams has a silver lining. Four of the last five UAM games are inside the friendly confines of Steelman Field House. The teams have to hit the road for only the relatively easy (compared with the next two weekends) 138-mile trip to Searcy and Harding University on Feb. 22.

“Having four of our last five conference games at home is a real positive,” Ray said, “and can be very beneficial to us as we make this push down the stretch.”

Sharpe added, “That is a great way to end the season with four of five at home. The standings are starting to get clogged up again with Southwestern and (Arkansas) Tech (University) losing to Northwestern and Southeastern. We enjoy playing at home and feel like we have an advantage.”

Provided these next two weekends on the road don’t make that advantage moot.

The Advance-Monticellonian

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