As the bus departed Bird Arena in the early hours of a Friday morning, the sun began to rise over the tips of Appalachia. The scene was quiet.
Players and coaches sprawled out over their seats and across the aisles looking to find the right position to catch up on sleep and kill time over the span of the five-hour, 20-minute trip to Annapolis, Maryland.
It was Ohio’s first road trip of the new season — and the start of 5,598 total miles and a combined 85 hours and 44 minutes the team will spend together on a bus in the next five months. The first road trip to play Navy was among the shorter trips the Bobcats have this season.
The team’s road trips are by no means convenient. The Bobcats almost always depart Athens on Friday mornings from an empty, dark campus and, for this trip, didn't eat their first team meal until 1:30 p.m., when they arrived at their hotel.
The hotel for this trip was also another half-hour to Navy’s McMullen Hockey Arena. Hotels closer to the rink exceeded the team budget, which, as a non-varsity program, is far more limited than that of the university’s other equally popular sports programs.
The Bobcats’ hockey program holds its own.
“We're completely self-sustaining,” said coach Sean Hogan who, aside from coaching the team, is also fully in charge of Ohio’s finances. “We don't get a budget from anybody.”
The Bobcats receive all of their money from ticket sales, alumni donations and sponsorships. Their players don’t get any sort of financial sponsorships from the school to play hockey — despite practicing five days a week, playing two games a weekend and traveling on equidistant road trips compared to the university’s varsity teams.
But they're just fine with that.
* * *
For its trip to Annapolis, Ohio’s bus food is a combination of any snacks the team brought on its own along with the bag of snacks supplied by the team’s biggest contributor, Blueline Boosters, a nonprofit organization that provides financial support through fundraising and volunteerism.
The treat bags are usually small and contain snacks like Rice Krispies Treats, granola bars, bananas and oranges, but it’s sufficient for the Bobcats.
The treat bag serves as a symbol of the relationship Blueline Boosters has with the team. Members of Blueline Boosters pay to join the program, with all money going back to support the team. In return, members have priority seating at home games.
The money raised by Blueline Boosters is at the heart of Ohio’s road finances.
“They're integral to our survival,” Hogan said. “We would not be able to operate without the Blueline club, and the same thing with our alumni. They're integral to our survival, and we need to raise money."
When Ohio arrives to its hotel in Glen Burnie, Maryland, the coaches ordered a few trays of pasta and salads from a local Italian restaurant down the street.
The type of meal is usually what the team orders as lunch before a road game — not expensive, but sufficient.
“That's 90 percent of the guys' pregame meals anyway when they're at home,” senior and team captain Jake Faiella said. “It's usually pretty good. They usually find a pretty good restaurant around there, but nothing too crazy.”
Ohio's biggest meal of the day, however, won't come until after Friday night's 6-2 win.
To say the late-night dinner is “big” would be an understatement.
The Bobcats’ routine after Friday road games is to order a large pizza for every two people on the bus. Sometimes even more pizza is delivered.
After the game, players swarm the roughly 40 boxes of pizza that await them in the hotel lobby.
“After a game, you're exhausted and you're just starving,” Faiella said of the Bobcats’ pizza night Fridays, which happen regardless of a win or loss. “We're pretty used to that right now, and the guys enjoy it."
It’s another cheap, but nonetheless plentiful, meal to cap off Ohio’s first and final night of the team's temporary stay.
* * *
After eating from the hotel’s complimentary breakfast Saturday morning, the Bobcats check out of their hotel at 12:30 p.m. with another five hours to kill before heading to the rink.
Ohio’s budget only permits the team to stay at a hotel for one night each road trip, which makes for an interesting schedule in the last half of the team’s road-trip weekend.
On the Navy trip, the team was lucky. They took a tour of the Naval Academy to finish up two of those hours, but the location is not always fit for such an activity, so the Bobcats have to create their own ways of killing time.
Sometimes that involves just spending a couple hours in a grocery store.
It’s how the team found its prestigious postgame award item: the WWE belt.
“It was Matt Hartman and Patty Spellacy,” Faiella said with a laugh as he recalled his former teammates’ big purchase. “They were walking through Walmart, and they said, 'We absolutely need this.'”
The belt is passed on after each game to whoever played the hardest and is a way of keeping the atmosphere loose and fun both at home and on the road. The deserving player gets to keep the belt in his stall for the next game.
"It's the big-dog belt,” Faiella said. “It's the guys who are working the hardest out of anybody."
It’s little things like the WWE belt that help get the team through the long road trips, especially the hardest road trip of the year: Iowa State.
It’s a roughly 12-hour trip that will require the Bobcats to leave Thursday night after practice. They won’t arrive in Iowa until mid-morning Friday.
When they arrive, they’ll practice again to get rid of the tired “bus legs.”
Faiella rolled his eyes and shook his head when he recalled taking the lengthy trip in the past.
"It absolutely sucks,” Faiella said. “There's no sugar-coating it.”
But it’s just a weekend trip. Before they know it, the Bobcats turn around and endure the 12 hours all over again.
"It sucks just from sitting so much,” junior Matt Rudin said. “You don't have that much stuff to do so you're watching just three or four movies, and even when you're sleeping you still have a movie going."
It’s long road trips like Iowa State where players will sometimes look for interesting ways to get their rest. Some guys ditch finding a comfortable position in their seats and sprawl out on the bus floor.
One time, Tom Pokornoy even used his own inflatable mattress.
Other times, it’s just about finding a comfortable, yet awkward, position in the pair of seats each player has.
"We've been riding on buses for so long, we have that one position where it gets comfortable,” Faiella said.
For some players, like Rudin, that one position involves getting creative in how the available bus space is utilized.
“If it's a short bus ride, like Chicago or anything that's six hours or shorter than that, most people can just sit in their seat and lay in the two seats with the feet up on the other chair,” Rudin said. “It's not that tough. It all depends if the person next to you sleeps sitting up or if he's trying to lay down, too. I feel like if everyone zig-zags their feet, everyone will be able to."
Among the difficulties Ohio endures on its road trips, the Bobcats have proven that they can overcome any and all potential obstacles of the traveling lifestyle.
Since 2015, Ohio is 16-6-1 on road trips where the team has taken a bus.
"It's a business trip for us,” Rudin said. “On every road trip, we're going there to get the two wins.”