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April 24, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Athletic buses are athletic buses. They exist as continuums among themselves — separate universes occupying different times and places, but with universal attributes. You can be teleported from one to another and not really notice the difference.
The buses are quiet on the way there, raucous on the way back. They smell like socks, in a good way. They’re both intensely private and public. Everyone on board is wracked by mental preparation and nerves or by reflection, all while trying to emanate a testosterone-fueled air of my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours candor.
But the only balls on this bus are league-approved and bright green. Stephens College’s softball team has its season-opening doubleheader in St. Charles. The Stars rented a MO-X charter for the two-hour trip.
I’ve been on athletic charter buses many times for high school baseball. There are the recognizable bay-sized windows, gift-wrap-patterned seats and little airplane TVs hanging down from the ceiling.
I recognize a lot of things here, too: flip-flops, long socks, sleek Under Armour garments, and the pre-game nerves. But increasingly, I start to see a lot of things I don’t recognize. Athletes play with painted nails and pink earphones. Freshman Jules Hitchcock wears pigtails and sparkly silver flats. Ribbons sprout from heads up and down the bus rows, and some fiddle with bobby pins and purses.
“What does E.R.A. stand for?” someone asks.
“… Earned … run … average,” replies head coach Tracy Dean, incredulously.
“No, I mean in law.”
Oh, right. Student athletes. If these are princesses, they evoke Xena more than Snow White. They’re college athletes. Dean hands out opponent stat sheets that would’ve given my old high school teammates vertigo. Behind me, someone is getting her hair braided while poring over charts of how to best tear apart her opponents.
Gender stereotypes are getting a bit blurry.
The nerves eventually do settle in, and the mood gets quiet. The rumble of tons of metal, glass and plastic going 60 mph does a lot to discourage conversation. Jules Hitchcock, the starting right fielder for today’s game, doesn’t talk much, and chooses instead to stare out the window for most of the ride.
“Our goal is to win seven games this year,” she says quietly.
“Out of how many?”
Maybe she should be nervous.
Some hours after arriving, we’re back on the bus. Despite being eked out 14-1 and 13-1, everyone’s already cheery. Nerves are gone; you don’t have to worry about getting your tail kicked if it has already happened.
This is the charter-bus continuum. This holy place is the piquant memory of nonprofessional sports. Not so much the glory of ninth-inning romance, nor the grueling 6 a.m. practices or the playing catch with oneself in bed at night. But it’s on the bus that they create chemistry, make jokes too inappropriate to publish, dream, fear, reflect, prepare and apparently, get their hair braided.