In the very back seat of the District 14 activity bus, Manitou Springs senior Cole Sienknecht sits alone. His feet are stretched out and headphones are jammed in his ears.
The sounds of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar are helping him both pass the time and get him in the right frame of mind.
The Mustangs have a league game. But they have a 1 p.m. departure time. They’ll head south on I-25 until they get to Pueblo. Then Ken, the typical bus driver for the boys, will turn them east and cut through the southeast plains of the state.
A showdown with the La Junta Tigers is looming.
When fans think of games between league opponents, the traditional thinking is that they come with geographically friendly trips.
That might be true when looking at some of the bigger schools in metro areas. For Centennial League teams in Denver, the kids might spend a half hour on a bus ride depending on traffic. The same logic can apply to the Colorado Springs Metro League.
But not the Class 3A Tri-Peaks.
On this day, the Mustangs will be crammed on the bus for two hours. This is far from uncommon for the small schools throughout the state. At some point they’ll go to Lamar, a full hour farther east on Highway 50 than La Junta.
Lamar is also a school that travels long stretches at times to try and improve in the league standings. A trip to Buena Vista totals nearly 250 miles one way. It can take a toll. But it’s also part of the fun that separates the small schools from the big ones.
Bus trips that are measured in hours rather than minutes give players time to develop relationships and grow as a team beyond their allotted time on the court each day.
“Usually, it’s the time when teams really come together,” Sienknecht said. “It’s when you get that camaraderie that you can’t get on the court and when you really become good friends.”
The bus ride is only part of the overall experience. On Jan. 5 the Mustangs loaded up and journeyed southwest in search of their first league win.
The good news for Manitou is that this is the last day that the students are on Christmas break. To take advantage, coach Ken Vecchio calls them in for a film session prior to the 1 p.m. scheduled departure.
The Tigers and the Mustangs had actually played each other earlier in the year. They met for the championship of the Trinidad State Junior College tournament, a game that the Tigers won.
The Mustangs gathered around a screen in the school’s gym and looked at that game trying to figure out what went wrong and what needed to happen in order to generate a different result.
The buses are outside and it’s time to load up. Both the girls and boys teams are traveling, something that will provide a small complication later.
As the players, coaches and managers file out of the school commons, a single cell phone is left on a table as it charges. Vecchio notices the phone and tells a girls assistant coach to ask her players if it might be one of theirs.
One of the girls darts back into the commons to retrieve it.
The buses are away on time. It takes time for Sienknecht and the others to get settled, as is the nature of teenagers. He claims one of the back seats along with the team’s only other senior, Jace Gwynn.
The coaching staff settles in up front, chatting about whatever is on their mind. Vecchio coaches alongside his son, Brian, and the duo has taken more of these long rides together than they’d care to count.
As the bus merges on to I-25 heading south, a pretty common picture of traveling high school kids begins to emerge.
Some of the kids are trying to grab some sleep. Others are listening to whatever music they have downloaded to their phones.
A couple of kids even have their heads buried in paperback novels, a welcome sight for those feeling that reading is a hobby that might be falling off in today’s youth.
Cows. Fields. Plains.
These are the views the kids get on the majority of the ride. Once they hit Pueblo and head east populated towns become few and far in between.
They'll pass through Fowler, Rocky Ford and Swink amongst others. There's still a way to go.
For the most part, the kids are either locked on to their music or carrying on conversations about school, the upcoming game or general life.
For the most part there is little, if any horseplay going. Not that there hasn't been.
"One time, (2017 grad) Davyn (Adamscheck) when we were going out to Buena Vista and he was sliding underneath the seats and messing with guys as they slept," Sienknecht said. "That was hilarious."
The Mustangs have struggled at times this year, so they can't get away with the jokes that they were able to pull off in recent years. With Sienknecht and Gwynn the only seniors on the team, they tend to set the tone for a more focused experience on the road.
"A lot of times, Jace and I just sit in the back and talk while people sleep," Sienknecht said.
The bus pulls into the parking lot of La Junta Middle School. On this particular day, the boys junior varsity will play here before jumping back on the bus and being shuttled over to Otero Junior College.
The girls JV and varsity teams are already over at Otero. They'll play there, avoiding the shuffling that is necessary sometimes when a school hosts a boys/girls double-header.
Former La Junta athletic director and current principal Dan Nuschy is on-site at the middle school to greet the Mustangs. He checks with Vecchio to make sure the ride went okay and show him where the boys locker room is.
The JV game went the way of the host Tigers. At the conclusion of the game, the players hurry to change and jump back on the bus to get to the site of the varsity game. The Manitou freshman team is scheduled to play at the middle school so Ken will take the JV, varsity and coaching staff over to Otero and then come back to get the younger kids.
The first varsity action of the night is underway. Both La Junta and Manitou are in search of their first league win.
The Mustangs jump out quick, scoring 33 points in the first quarter alone.
As halftime nears, the boys varsity is in gear and ready to go. After two hours on the bus and watching two games, they're itching to get underway.
The Manitou girls walk away victorious. As they filter off the court a few of the boys offer high-fives but jump right on the court for pregame warmups.
By the time warmups have started, the Manitou freshman team has also wrapped up a win and hitched a ride on the bus over to Otero.
It's not always the case, especially on the long trips, but all indications are that the varsity game will begin at it's scheduled start time.
It's go time. The Tigers and Mustangs are underway for the second time this season. As the first time, it turns into an intense battle between two teams very familiar with each other in terms of style and playing preferences.
The players are familiar with each other as well. Sienknecht and Gwynn have played against La Junta's Jon Nuschy and Dyson Oquist on the football field as well as the basketball court.
When the final buzzer eventually sounds the Mustangs come away with a 10-point win, evening the season series with their Tri-Peaks adversaries.
The Mustangs have to hurry in the locker room as they have to stop for food and start making their way back west.
The Tigers won't be too far behind. The next day, they'll make a three-hour trek to Salida. It'll be another league showdown, but this time it'll be on the road.
Like the Manitou kids, the Tigers don't necessarily mind. They've come to embrace the trips as a chance to bond in a way that a lot of teams can't on their cross-town trips.
"They're good. I like that we like to be together as a team and be brothers," Nuschy said. "It's a good atmosphere and I like it. I like our team."
The Mustangs are loaded on the bus and on the move. The first order of business is stop and get something to eat.
They hit a McDonald's on the east edge of town. The de facto babysitter of over two dozen teenagers, Vecchio instructs them to get ordered and eat quickly since there is still a long trip ahead.
Over the course of the next half hour, they recap the events of the night. A 10-point win is sure better than the 15-point loss that they suffered earlier in the year.
"There's more of a reflection period after a loss," Sienknecht said. "The first time we lost to La Junta, we watched filmed and picked out our mistakes. Getting a big win then heading back is nice."
The bus gets loaded back up and the kids, still amped over the win, take a few minutes to settle down. Over the next few days some specifics of the game will be cleared up.
Here's what went right. Here's what went wrong. This is what needs to be better in order to keep growing as a team and winning.
But that's a tomorrow issue.
The players get back to their music. Vecchio pours over the score book and even dives into game film.
The assistant coaches join the players in listening to music, watching movies on their phones or sleeping.
This isn't the first time they've had to do this.
And it is far from the last.