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Tough Travel Schedules For Alaskan Sports Teams06:57
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Angel Spurgeon and Vonni Spigai rest during halftime in their first game against Sitka. (Emily Files)
Angel Spurgeon and Vonni Spigai rest during halftime in their first game against Sitka. (Emily Files)
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Players from the Ketchikan High School girls JV soccer team, the Lady Kings, wait in the Ketchikan airport for their final trip of the season. They’re flying to Sitka, a slightly smaller town that’s about 200 miles north, also on an island. The past month and a half, they’ve traveled nearly every weekend. They flew to Juneau twice, then Anchorage, now Sitka.

Marissa Medford, the team’s head coach, acknowledged that the trip was exhausting. But she was nevertheless confident and optimistic.

“They’ve got this down,” Medford said. “They’ve pretty much been living out of their bags for a month now. Pretty much enough time to get home, wash their stuff, get the new set of homework and hit the road again.”

She believes the payoff is worth it, despite the brutal schedule.

“We have a really bad issue with substance abuse and domestic violence,” Medford said. “Not just Ketchikan, but Alaska in general. So it’s good for them to stay involved and have self-worth, and a sense of purpose and meaning. So that’s good to see.”

“This team does not lack in self-confidence at all,” she laughed. “So that is good.”

Flights in Alaska are expensive. A roundtrip ticket from Ketchikan to Juneau is about $400 per seat. Now multiply that by 20 or 30 players, and you have the Lady Kings’ seasonal travel budget. Needless to say, the team needs lots of fundraising to make things work.

Medford estimated that the total travel this year came to about $45,000, but the school district gives the team about $20,000. It’s up to the girls and the coach to raise the rest.

Back at the airport, the girls carry their duffel bags and iPods onto the plane. Once they land, they’re driven to the homes of the Sitka soccer players. That means not only do they stay with strangers on these trips, but they stay with the people they’re competing against.

Angel Spurgeon at the second game against Sitka. (Emily Files/Only A Game)
Angel Spurgeon at the second game against Sitka. (Emily Files/Only A Game)

Angel Spurgeon, a Ketchikan striker, was understandably somewhat uncomfortable with the idea.

“I always feel awkward staying at people’s [homes] that I don’t know,” Spurgeon admitted.

But it’s especially awkward if you’re staying with someone who can’t let go of what happens on the field, as she found out the hard way.

“There was one time when we played Thunder MT [Thunder Mountain High School in Juneau]. We tied with them [and] broke their undefeated streak. The goalie wouldn’t give the people she was housing a ride home,” she said. “So she made her parents give them a ride home ‘cause she was kind of mad at us.”

But Angel’s teammate Katie Powers said that most of the time, competitiveness goes away when the players are eating dinner and watching movies together.

“On the field, you see them as the team to beat and you see them fouling your team. It definitely gives you an impression of them,” Powers said. “Then you joke around with them later and they’re really nice, and at first it’s a little odd to see. It’s surprising because you get this impression of them, but I think it’s really nice that we get to stay with them. It’s nice to get to see them outside of the game.”

On this trip, the team missed yet another day of school. Because of travel, student-athletes miss a lot of Fridays, and sometimes Thursdays and Wednesdays. Coach Medford said she always makes sure that the team stays on track with their schoolwork.

“Each day they miss school, [they are] required to do a study hour. That’s what we’re doing right now,” Medford said.

Sure enough, the girls sit around tables at Sitka High School, filling out worksheets and essay outlines. They say the most difficult part of doing homework on the road is not having their teachers there to answer questions.

Later in the afternoon, the team faced off against the Sitka High School Wolves. The Ketchikan JV team played Sitka back in March and easily won. In fact, the Lady Kings were undefeated for the season.

That didn’t change, as the Lady Kings beat Sitka 5-0. But the next day, things took a turn, as Sitka returned the favor and defeated Ketchikan 3-1. It was the Lady Kings’ last game of the season.

The Lady Kings land back in Ketchikan. (Emily Files/Only A Game)
The Lady Kings land back in Ketchikan. (Emily Files/Only A Game)

Powers and fellow Lady King Vonni Spigai expressed their disappointment, noting their travelling disadvantage.

“It was a horrible game,” said Spigai. “Their advantage is they can go home and sleep in their own beds, and they’re subbing in every three minutes, it seems.”

“We definitely didn’t play our best,” Powers agreed. “But you can’t blame a game on that completely. It wasn’t one of our good games, and they played pretty good.”

The next morning, back at the Sitka airport, teammates Melody Jacksch and Teiara Hayes were similarly downcast.

“We were all focused on, ‘This is our last game, we get to go home and do nothing,’” said Hayes. “So we weren’t really in it to win it, I guess.”

“It was kind of sad because it broke our undefeated streak,” said Jacksch. “But it’s OK. I guess you can’t be on a high horse forever.”

Now, these two girls are both trying to decide whether the huge commitment to high school soccer is worth it. Melody plays alto sax in two high school bands. Music, soccer, and her studies have made for a difficult balancing act. She said she might drop soccer next year. But Teiara said that she’s decided to quit ballet so that she has time to continue with soccer.

“I’ve done ballet for 10 years, and leaving it kind of feels like you’re being shot in the heart,” she said. “But you’re doing it for something else that you’re learning to love.”

Indeed, if soccer is such a huge and exhausting commitment, some might wonder if playing in the first place is worth it. But according to Coach Medford, the experience of being on the team does more than give the athletes a chance to play sports.

“I think it helps them grow, and it brings them closer,” Medford said. “It’s different than people down south. You hop on a bus, go play a game, hop on a bus, go back home. [The Lady Kings] are with each other all the time. They grow friendships, and they grow up together.”

This segment aired on May 31, 2014.

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