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WOSTER: Riding bus was rite of passage

Terry Woster, Daily Republic Columnist  It’s hard to believe anyone could be so incredibly inexperienced, but when we boarded a Chamberlain school bus for the Black Hills and a couple of basketball games on the morning after Thanksgiving Day in 1960, that was the first time I’d ridden a bus to an athletic contest.

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These days, people start riding the bus to football, basketball, track, cross-country, wrestling, volleyball and what all else. If parents take kids out of town for athletic contests, the kids are probably in grade school or junior high and on a traveling team. Back in my day, we didn’t really have a thing called traveling teams. Our version of traveling teams involved kids playing varsity or at least B-team ball. A couple of parents took the kids. Younger than that, I’m not sure we got to play much at all, although I remember traveling to the north end of town to play the kids from St. Joseph’s Indian School, and maybe one trip up to Stephan for an eighth-grade game (I think).

What I do know is that I’d never gone on a team bus before, and I was a junior in high school. It was the first year I’d made the varsity team. Maybe that had something to do with the upscale transportation. Or maybe it was because we’d be staying overnight, playing Lead on Friday evening and Deadwood on Saturday evening. We stayed both nights at the Franklin Hotel in Deadwood, another huge step in this young athlete’s life.

The hotel stay, as luxurious as the Franklin was, didn’t match the team road trip for me. I was pretty much silent and trying not to have the seniors, most of them the starting five, notice that I existed, even as I watched the easy way they bantered back and forth. A kid could learn a lot from Ed Steckelberg and Chuck Yates and Johnny Houska. None of those guys seemed the least bit nervous, and, as I said, they were starters and knew they’d be playing a bunch out in the hills. I was lucky to be on the team, had no realistic hopes of getting off the bench unless one of the big men got hurt or in really bad foul trouble early. Even so, I was worried half to death as we crossed the state on old Highway 16 with Dale Vance, the head basketball coach, at the wheel.

We’d opened the season three days earlier, hosting Gregory’s Gorillas. It was a successful home opener, and we had high hopes for a winning season. The previous year, a season I’d spent mostly on crutches with an ankle injury from the opening sophomore game at Pukwana, the varsity went to the state Class B tournament for the first time in school history. The seniors set a goal of repeating, and the season-opening win boosted the optimism of both the team and the town. It wasn’t quite “Hoosiers,” but it was a lot of excitement for my hometown on the Missouri River.

The first evening out in the Black Hills didn’t follow the script at all. Coach Vance (the kids all called him “Doc,” and seniors like Steckelberg and Yates called him that to his face, which didn’t seem to bother him) warned us that we might be feeling out of breath and tired sooner than usual because of the altitude in Deadwood. Both games were played in the Deadwood gym. Well, the power of suggestion took hold and we were all gassed by the time we dressed and trotted onto the floor for warm-ups. We lost by 10 or 11, I think.

I didn’t get much sleep that night. It wasn’t because of the loss. I don’t know if I even got in the game. Problem was, I was rooming with Lee Simpson, a tough reserve center-forward and a much tougher rodeo competitor. He talked for half the night, keeping me laughing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. (Or was that the altitude?)

Next evening, acclimated to the altitude, we beat Deadwood by a point or two. I got a couple of minutes off the bench. On the bus ride home, I felt more like I belonged.