Earlier this summer, I wrote a feature on how Class A football teams in southern West Virginia are forced to travel long distances for games against teams their size because the schools are getting farther and farther apart following consolidations.
Some teams are separated by 200 or more miles and three to four hours of driving time. But in at least one other state, those are considered quick trips.
My feature prompted a reader in Marlinton, Robert C. Smith, to write a letter and send along a copy of a story that ran a few years ago in the Anchorage Daily News about the prohibitive expenses of travel for rural high school sports teams in Alaska, where Smith formerly lived.
Schools in "The Last Frontier'' regularly travel a lot longer to play games in a spacious state where no roads exist between many of the towns. Trips can only be made by airplane or ferry boat, with some of those excursions taking as long as 17 hours.
One of the state conferences, the Railbelt, spans an area the size of Florida. The Greatland Conference covers the length of the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline. Conference games may involve a flight the equivalent of going from Chicago to New York.
Smith, who lived in Sitka, located on the outer coast of the Alaska Panhandle in the southernmost part of the state, said all the high school teams had travel problems.
"Travel to and from the Southeast Alaska Regional Tournaments sometimes takes a week,'' Smith said in his letter. "Some of the athletes and fans fly because you can't drive between the towns. The bulk of the travelers go by State Ferries, which can hold up to 500 people each. Our teams sometimes play against the Anchorage or Fairbanks teams. These towns are more than 600 miles away.
"High school basketball, baseball, softball, wrestling and others schedule games over the weekend with the opposing teams. There are multiple games. The visiting athletes are housed by families in the towns hosting the games. Often the athlete may be living with the family that has a son or daughter that is on the opposition. Long-time friends are made in these situations.''
Needless to say, it costs quite a bit of money to play those games, especially football, where programs are possible in many towns only because of aggressive fundraising by nonprofit football associations. The associations must also pay for the bulk of travel expenses for the visiting team, usually up to 22 plane tickets or 50 ferry tickets.
Some school districts provide a small amount of money, but dedicated players spend plenty of time fundraising on top of their own participation fees of $400 or so - it could be selling raffle tickets, program ads or taking part in a work detail where they can be hired at an hourly rate by anyone to do odd jobs. That's both in season and out of season.
At these schools, a player's ability to sell ads or raffle tickets is just as crucial as the ability to block or tackle. Unfortunately, that commitment doesn't always guarantee a player makes the traveling squad. If the team flies, players not among the top 22 don't go.
The article also recounted Juneau-South's 2007 season in which it won a Large School football playoff semifinal game in Anchorage - the trip cost $11,000 - and the president of the local youth football league was worried that a return trip the following week for the title game might bust his group's yearly travel budget of $180,000.
"It does put you in a strange situation,'' said the group president, James Lockwood. "You want to win, of course, but a gnawing little voice tells you, 'If we lose, we'll save $14,000.' ''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickr...@wvgazette.com.