High school athletes at Grand Canyon School go the extra mile to compete

Grand Canyon Phantoms travel approximately 100 hours to attend games,

Grand Canyon School Phantoms basketball team players walk though a crowd of supporters on the way to a state playoff game in 2013. WGCN

Grand Canyon School Phantoms basketball team players walk though a crowd of supporters on the way to a state playoff game in 2013. WGCN

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Every year, thousands of tourists gladly travel countless hours just to catch a glimpse of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Unbeknownst to many of those tourists, they have probably passed a school bus carrying student-athletes representing Grand Canyon High School (GCHS) heading in the opposite direction, on its way to an equally far-flung destination.

Members of the Phantoms sports teams know the Canyon's remoteness all too well. They travel hundreds of miles every time they hit the road to represent their school. And while the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) tries its best to ease travel burdens for schools like GCHS, the sheer distance from other schools makes crafting a travel-friendly athletic schedule nearly impossible.

"Grand Canyon travel was tough because there was usually nothing to do between Grand Canyon and our destination, [the] uncomfortable school buses, [the] buses that frequently broke down, and most schools we played only had one gym so we would have to sit through three other games to play," said David Beery, former boys' basketball coach for three years at GCHS.

The long trips have not enhanced the academic experience for GCHS student-athletes. While some can do their schoolwork on the bus, others cannot overcome the distractions or motion sickness that accompany long bus rides.

"The scheduling isn't conducive to doing homework or off-school studying," said Greg Walker, who bounced in and out of coaching girls and boys basketball at GCHS until the 2013-2014 season. "We had diligent players that were cramming, trying to study on the bleachers or the bus, and they still struggled with it."

Javier Aberego, athletic director for Grand Canyon School said he tries not to schedule games on a weekday because of its potential to interfere with student academics.

However, that's largely out of his control.

In the past, all the coaches within the 1A Conference, which GCHS was a part of, would arrange a meeting in which they planned that season's sport schedule. Each team had a limit of 20 games, in which they played each other twice (one at home and one away) and scheduled scrimmages or tournaments to fill in the remainder of their allotments.

"The schedule was built to fit everyone's needs," said Andrew Aldez, former GCHS athletic director for five years until 2011. "Some teams needed to play earlier in the day than normal and we were able to accommodate those needs for each other."

However, five years ago the AIA took control over how sports schedules were made. The 1A Conference was scraped, and replaced with divisions and sections. First, a school would be placed into a division - primarily, this was based on the size and competitiveness of the school. Those divisions were then broken down into sections, which are, generally, based on geography.

The team is then put into a computer-generated scheduling program that begins to schedule their section games - either one home game, or, one away game since the teams are now only required to play each other once. After the section games are scheduled, the computer moves on to schedule games within the team's division, attempting to pick up the closest teams.

"Obviously, it's only as good as who programs it, but I think what they base their program on is proximity," said Jeannine Brandel, Flagstaff High School athletic director who used to sit on the scheduling committee. "I can't say that it always happens, but I do know that's one of the things they try to do."

The 2014-2015 basketball season for the Lady Phantoms consisted of a total of 21 games - 12 of which were away games, including three games that were part of the Pepsi Tournament at Flag High. Round trip, these away games totaled approximately 52 hours and 32 minutes of travel time for a total of 2,657 miles. The average trip was 224 miles.

The boys' basketball team traveled approximately five hours less than the girls that season due to a canceled game with the Rock Point Cougars in Rock Point, Arizona.

For the upcoming 2015-2016 season, the Phantoms will be placed in Division V, Section V - a new division that the AIA added for small Arizona schools.

"Basically, what they did is strip out all the private schools so what's left are truly the small schools, the town teams," Walker said. "Previously, there was an unfair advantage and now, in my opinion, these small schools could win a state title."

The Phantoms will be playing against Ash Fork (approximately 78 miles away), El Capitan (232 miles), Shonto Prep (132 miles), Seligman (102 miles), Fredonia (200 miles), Williams (59 miles), and Grey Hills (82 miles).

But what happens to a team if they cannot comply with these computer generated schedules?

"If a team on your list is too far away and you chose not to play them, you can cancel that contest by mutual consent," Brandel said. "The AIA does the computer scheduling, it then gets sent to all the schools, and, at that time, we have the opportunity to tweak the schedule."

In addition, basketball, teams are allowed to play 20 games in a season, two of which are tournaments. The computer only schedules games at the minimum amount needed to qualify for the state tournament - playing each section team once and playing seven more randomly selected games within the team's division, a total of 14 games. The remaining four games, aside from the tournaments, are freedom games that a school's athletic director can choose to schedule or not.

If a team is in a crunch financially, they can opt to play the minimum schedule in order to help alleviate costs.

"Ultimately, the goal of the scheduling was to help get schools to the minimum number of games in each sport to be able to qualify for the state tournament, so athletic directors would have to spend less time filling their needed games," wrote Brian Bolitho, director of Business Media for the AIA, in an email.

According to Aberego, in order to help alleviate the costs of traveling, the boys' and girls' teams travel together on one bus - a time in which the school's small size comes in handy. The Booster Club also lends some help at times and, to alleviate costs of travel for parents, the school will pick-up students who live in Valle, Arizona, on their way to a game.

"We just make it work," Abrego said.

When Aldez was the athletic director, the state of Arizona would pay $1.64 per mile for every regular bus route completed (i.e., picking up kids at bus stops) and .20 cents per mile for activities, which includes extracurricular travel, field trips and vocational needs. GCHS would be paid the following year for that year's travel reimbursements, which made up the school's travel budget.

"We were always getting money at the end, that's how it was budgeted," Aldez said. "That paid for traveling, and also servicing school buses and training for bus drivers."

Currently, the Williams High School, a total of 220 students, gets reimbursed .15 cents per mile for extracurricular travel up to 22,000 miles. "I think schools with less than 100 students get special guidelines, but I'm not too sure," said Phillip Echeverria, athletic director at Williams High School.

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