Looking at the anatomy of a men’s hoops road trip to the Upper Peninsula

GVL / Luke Holmes - The basketball teams load the bus and set off for up north.

Luke Holmes

GVL / Luke Holmes – The basketball teams load the bus and set off for up north.

Beau Troutman

The Grand Valley State men’s basketball team’s games this weekend are going to be a little different than usual.

The Lakers will face the Michigan Tech Huskies Thursday, Jan. 26 in Houghton, Michigan, and will then finish the weekend at Northern Michigan against the Wildcats in Marquette, Michigan Saturday, Jan. 28. The two road games prove crucial for a Lakers’ team (12-6, 8-3 GLIAC) that is coming off of huge wins over Saginaw Valley State and Wayne State last weekend.

Traditionally, the Lakers have always played the Wildcats on Thursday, heading to Marquette first, and then ended the weekend in Houghton, creating a shorter drive to one of the most northernmost points of the Upper Peninsula.The Lakers left Wednesday morning, Jan. 25 at 10 a.m., starting a 10-hour, 519 mile adventure to snowy Houghton.

Besides game-planning for the Huskies and the Wildcats on the court, the Lakers will be putting a considerable amount of energy on the logistics of the road trip—as they do with any away games. While they’ll depend on Trevin Alexander, Luke Ryskamp, Juwan Starks and the rest of the squad to get wins on Thursday and Saturday, GVSU will be depending on a separate team to coordinate the things behind the scenes fans don’t see.

“Everybody does their job,” said GVSU coach Ric Wesley. “That’s how our organization works—everybody has a different role and you hope everybody does it to the best of their ability. When you do that, it doesn’t ensure that you’re going to win, but it really increases your chances when things go smoothly.”

The Lakers rely on several individuals in the organization, from student-managers to assistant coaches. Assistant coach J.R. Wallace, who is in his first season as a full-time assistant coach after being a graduate assistant the previous two seasons, is tasked with running point on the Lakers’ travel logistics. Wallace is responsible for anything travel related, from developing an itinerary to deciding what movies the team will watch.

The men’s and women’s teams travel together in one bus, and long trips like this one require careful planning. Any time spent not moving forward is time waster—the team uses the services of two bus drivers, each of whom are only allowed to have 10 hours of driving time, and that includes rest stops.

“I want (the team) to try to stick to the script,” Wallace said. “I’m trying to keep coach Wesley and our staff on script. I want to see if (him and the assistants) can predict this trip.”

No decision is too small for Wallace, and he relies on the help of the team’s student-managers: Zak Spryszak, Damien Loveless, Connor Wesley, Harold Wiggins and Riley Gallagher. Wallace and company make sure the team is stocked with plenty of food and other travel essentials.

Wesley makes sure to refer to the student-assistants as just that, and not managers, as he believes the latter title carries a condescending tone.

“I don’t think that serves them well, does justice to what those guys do for our program,” Wesley said. “They’re student-assistants. They do behind the scenes, get stats, get equipment, whether its team travel, player counseling, I mean they do so many valuable things for our program. I try to call them student-assistants because I think that gives them the kind of respect they deserve.”

Another thing Wallace, a history and education major, tries to do with road trips is make them fun. The team always stops to eat right after crossing the Mackinac Bridge, an experience he and the team always look forward to. With so many hours to kill on the road, he also tries to select movies that have a lesson to be learned, and appeal to both the men’s and women’s teams.

Well, usually.

“You can always learn something from a quote-unquote, ‘chick-flick,’” Wallace said. “(The men’s team) is all jocks, so we always like the sports movies that expand the kids so that they’re constantly growing as young individuals.”

The team bonding process doesn’t end with movies. Wallace is always making sure the players are on top of their game, whether that’s basketball, school, being a good teammate, or just life in general.

“It’s always about taking care of business,” he said. “I tell the guys all the time, ‘you’re more likely to be an uncle, a father than an NBA player.’ If we can get the skills to be able to set the tone how to study, how to work hard, how to put teammates first, then we’ll be fine. We get to see that up close and personal when we’re on the road together.”

Of course, not everything goes according to script. Practice times and venues, restaurant choices, can all change, and there’s always the element of the unknown. The last time the Lakers were in the UP earlier this season, the team bus was hit by a malfunctioning snowmobile while parked. Luckily, no one was on the bus at the time and the snowmobile driver was fine, but it represented some of the crazy things that can happen when on the road.

“Things happen,” Wesley said. “Good teams, you try to minimize those weird mistakes, uncertainties, problem areas, but you also have to be able to just kind of keep moving through it.”

One last area Wesley notes is important is recovery. Without their own training facilities in Allendale, team trainer Josh Slayton is forced to make do with the hand he’s dealt on the road. Slayton uses NormaTec body sleeves that are used for player recovery, and constantly plans ahead for what the team’s process will be in the event of an injury.

With player recovery, one aspect stands out to Slayton, especially on the road.

“I think one of the most important things about my job is just the communication between me and the coaches and then the athletes,” Slayton said. “All the stuff that I learned in four years of college didn’t really prepare me for the communication aspect of it. When you know your material and have good communication with the guys, everything kind of falls into place.”

All told, a lot goes into road games that fans don’t see.

“Ultimately, being in a hotel, being on the road gives you that foxhole mentality, and we’re all ready to go,” Wallace said.