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Air travel chaos forces high school athletes to drive 12 hours for games

San Ramon Valley guard Luke Isaak (24) dribbles during the fourth quarter of the Wolves' 69-63 loss to Riordan in a non-league basketball game in San Francisco on Dec. 3, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

An impromptu caravan made its way down Interstate 5 on Monday evening.

Throughout the day, as Bay Area high school basketball and soccer teams found out their flights were canceled, teams packed into cars, vans and buses and made their way to Southern California or beyond to compete in tournaments.

Tournament play between Christmas and New Year is common in high school sports. It’s a chance for teams to bond, build friendships and face competition from out of the area, instead of squaring off against the same local opponents again and again, but more than a few Bay Area schools had their plans impacted by the tsunami of canceled flights.

Seven of the boys basketball teams in the East Bay Athletic League (EBAL), the strongest league in the Bay Area this year, were playing in tournaments in Southern California. 

San Ramon Valley was supposed to take Southwest flight 3540 from San Jose to Ontario on Monday, but the Wolves’ flight was canceled while they were waiting at the airport. They packed up the cars, made a stop at an In-N-Out Burger along the way and arrived in Southern California in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Riordan guard King-Njhsanni Wilhite (3) drives on San Ramon Valley forward Seamus Deely (15) and guard Luke Isaak (24) during the first quarter of the Crusaders' 69-63 win over the Wolves in a non-league basketball game. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Other teams had similar experiences. California High head coach Steve Ohlmeyer’s team ultimately made its way to Orange County’s Tustin in time for a Tuesday evening game, with most making the drive on Monday night after Southwest flight 1251 from Oakland to Burbank, scheduled for Tuesday morning, was scrapped. A few of Ohlmeyer’s players couldn’t make the drive, but found a flight on Tuesday morning via low-cost Breeze Airways from SFO to San Bernardino.

READ MORE: ‘Santa’ Misses Christmas Stuck in San Jose Thanks to Southwest

The St. Ignatius soccer teams won’t have much sympathy for the basketball teams that headed to Southern California. Both SI’s boys and girls soccer teams learned that their flights to Phoenix had been canceled, and took I-5 and I-10 to the desert, a 12-hour trip. The Wildcat ladies salvaged a 1-1 draw against local side Hamilton on Tuesday.

The longest trip of all, though, belongs to Seattle private school power O’Dea, the alma mater of top NBA Draft pick Paolo Banchero. The Fighting Irish boys basketball team had no means of getting to San Diego, so they linked up with nearby public school Auburn, who needed a way to The Classic at Damien. The teams rented a bus and began the 20-hour trek south. They dropped the Trojans off in Pomona before continuing on to San Diego.

Dougherty Valley didn’t take it easy on O’Dea, though. The Fighting Irish arrived at Torrey Pines less than an hour before tip-off and lost 70-58, with USF commit Ryan Beasley scoring 37 points for the Wildcats. Most of Dougherty Valley’s team drove down on Monday, though some coaches and parents were among the lucky few to get a flight down on Tuesday.

Tournaments in the Bay Area were largely spared. Out-of-state teams, including Seattle Prep, made it to Oakland for the Damian Lillard Classic, but Marin Catholic’s Bambauer Classic ended up one team short. Redmond was supposed to make the trip from Washington, but had no means of transportation after Alaska Airlines flight 303 was canceled on Monday. The flight was scheduled for 6:15 a.m., and it was only canceled five hours before it was scheduled to take off.

Most of Alaska’s flights to the Bay Area this week were unimpacted, but they were too full to accommodate the Mustangs’ traveling party. Alaska couldn’t offer them a flight until Wednesday at noon. There was an option to fly to Redding early Tuesday morning, but that would have necessitated a four-hour drive.

“We were extremely bummed not to make it,” Redmond head coach Todd Rubin said.

The tournament proceeded with 15 teams instead of 16. One team was given a bye each day instead, similar to some of the last-minute scheduling changes that were made in December of 2021 in response to Covid breakouts. Arcata, who was supposed to play Huntington Park on Monday, scrimmaged Marin Catholic’s JV team.

Alaska Airlines is urging passengers to check the status of their flight before boarding here.

A Southwest Airlines spokesperson urged passengers to use this link to check flight status and said: “We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. These operational conditions forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.”