The UNBC Women's soccer team, and all the Timberwolves varsity teams, spend many hours on the bus traveling to or from Canada West games. Their closest game, in Kamloops, is approximately 520 kilometres away. Rosters are built by coaches. But teams are built in training, early morning practices, hard-fought games, and yes...on those long bus rides.
The TWolves qualified for their second consecutive Canada West playoffs this year, and would have to travel to Vancouver, B.C. for the matchups. This trip, I went along for the ride, and got to see first-hand the bond that ties 23 athletes together. And much more.
Coach Neil Sedgwick called early morning training prior to the bus trip, so the players slowly make their way out to the pick-up spot in front of the Northern Sport Centre. Most of the team (the ones with wet hair in particular) groan when I pull out my camera, and they choose to pretend I don't exist.
Dennis the bus driver arrives, and the loading of the Pacific Western Transport bus begins. Dennis is clearly a favourite among the athletes.
Just fifteen minutes into the ten-hour voyage, I am stunned as we make our first stop. Tim Hortons is flooded by 23 student-athletes, but they hold up admirably to the influx in hot chocolate orders.
Two hours into the trip, and the volume has significantly decreased on board. A quick trip down the aisle, and the reason for the relative silence becomes clear. Coach Sedgwick's morning training is likely to blame.
The winding highway has a couple Timberwolves feeling the effects of motion sickness. Veterans Madison Emmond and Ashley Volk make their way to the front of the bus to combat it, but my insistence that I capture this moment on camera doesn't seem to help at all. They fake the smiles before politely telling me to return to my assigned seat.
Tim Hortons gets paid another visit, this time in Williams Lake. Timberwolves dominate the lineup for coffees, and for the bathroom. A Williams Lake citizen asks if the athletes are basketball players. The vertically challenged athletes seem flattered. A quick explanation of their identity and reason for the trip, and the TWolves receive a good luck and thumbs up. Cleary, Williams Lake is not a hotbed for Manitoba Bisons fans.
With steeped teas and fruit explosions on hand, the bus breaks into little pockets of conversations. Towards the back of the bus, second-year Sonja Neitsch is preaching the importance of different coloured ink, and how it helps with studying and recollection. Always shy, Neitsch reluctantly poses with an example of her colourful notes. Time will tell if she comes out of her shell.
At the rear of the bus, Hannah Emmond continues an impressive slumber that began within Prince George city limits. Undeterred by chatter, the second-year forward remains bundled up, and kindly poses for a picture. Time will tell how long she keeps posing.
Coach Sedgwick is settled in, studying game film in his usual seat at the front of the bus. Or so he says. Some say he is trying to break a personal record for Solitaire, but I can't see his screen. Based on his historically tremendous preparation, we will trust the coach.
Cache Creek is the next stop, where we are greeted by a gas station/A&W/much-needed bathroom combination. The athletes fill the aisles, seeking a healthy snack. The type of healthy snack that is tough to find in a gas station/A&W/much-needed bathroom combination. Kaitlyn Chojnacki seems desperate, even considering a can of soup. Bowls, spoons, and heat seem to be a secondary consideration.
Good news. Great news. The nap is over. Hannah Emmond emerges from dream street, but is clutching only a tupperware of cold pasta. No sauce, no problem. We will see how she solves the conundrum just seconds after waking up.
Back on the road, heading through the canyon towards our destination, morale seems high for the TWolves. Kiana Swift holds court at the front of the bus, leading a mild Disney sing-a-long. It turns out to be just an opening act for the vocal performance later on, but her rendition of the Moana soundtrack is strong.
I hear a slight sniffling in the seat directly behind me. Second-year Prince George product Kierstin Vohar's eyes have welled up while watching something on her computer. Upon investigation, she is watching Star Wars Rogue One, and the impending death of a character has her a tad misty. Mara McCleary, seated across the aisle from Kierstin, confirms for me - someone who has never seen a Star Wars film - that the film is in fact emotional.
I brave a trip to the back of the bus, enticed by fits of laughter and chatter. Hallie Nystedt, Hannah Emmond (yes, she stayed awake), Madi Doyle, Sonja Neitsch, Kyra Wallace, and Brooke Molby are holding court, discussing Halloween, school, soccer. These chats, and these moments are the best parts of being a team. A group picture demonstrates that bond, and the fact that Brooke doesn't hold her head still.
Hunger is starting to set in. The Disney singing has subsided. The laughter, muted. Quiet, hopeful dinner conversation is the focus. Paige Payne hands out per diem. Sofia Jones does Mara McCleary's hair, grinning, while Mara doesn't realize her picture is being taken. Seconds later, that changes, but the deed is done.
The bus arrives in Langley at Original Joe's. The cheers are audible. The journey is nearing a conclusion, and so too is their hunger. 23 student-athletes, plus coaches, a bus driver, and a slightly-annoying media guy shuffle into the restaurant. It strikes me, again, just how fortunate and rare these experiences are for the young athletes who live this life while representing their university. Plus, another bathroom break is a bonus.
The homestretch. Richmond isn't far now, and I foolishly assume the rest of the quest through cloudy Vancouver will be quiet. How wrong I was. A mobile speaker makes its way to the middle of the bus, where most of the girls converge. Ashley Volk, a third-year, plays the role of DJ, and has a miraculous bounce-back after her early motion sickness. This is a comeback story for the ages. Special shoutout to Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers for their role in getting the party started.
The karaoke party continues. High School Musical. Disney. More High School Musical. Troy Bolton would be less enthused about the Wildcats and more about the TWolves at this point. Kiana Swift, who just turned 18-years-old, proves to be a breakout star, and the bus fills with singing, shrieking, and laughter. Another one of those moments; a shared experience between 23 people, each with a different story. And Zac Efron.
Eleven hours after our departure, the bus arrives at the Sandman in Richmond. Coach Sedgwick hands out the room keys, and makes a plan for a team meeting in the morning. I hum High School Musical as I go to bed.
Previously, no UNBC Women's varsity team had ever won a Canada West playoff game, but this team changed that. One day after 790 kilometres in a bus, the Timberwolves beat the Manitoba Bisons on penalty kicks to advance in the conference playoffs. They will forever be a part of UNBC history, and will surely each remember that victory for a long, long time. But, what became clear on that lengthy trip was the reality that the wet hair, Timmy's stops, motion sickness, snack decisions, nap time, big discussions, hair brushing, study time, singalongs, hugs, and laughter will last a lifetime. As so it should.