Last school year, Westby School District buses logged 10,500 miles taking athletes around the state in the regular and post-season.
That doesn't count the 48 miles the Thunder have to travel every day for practices between Westby and its co-op school, the Grenora Gophers (in North Dakota).
“We’re the only co-op,” said bus driver and father of Westby alumni Kelly Olson. “Our road blocks a lot of the time in the wintertime between Westby and Plentywood in the snow, and we're actually a little bit closer to Grenora.
“They needed us and we needed them. Usually one of us was short girls or boys, so together we had enough to compete in sports. We actually co-oped with Plentywood for a few years for football, but then when we hit our true co-op, our boys played the sports in Montana and the girls competed in North Dakota so it was equal between the two towns.”
That became a hassle for some, since if you watched a boys game you would miss a girls game, and vice versa. The Westby-Grenora co-op became official in 2012, and they went to six-man football. That team has gone to the state tournament four years in a row, with two second-place finishes, third place and this year, fourth place.
"Long," Olson said of the nearly 600-mile drive to Missoula. "Where we live, we're used to traveling, so it's just another day for us."
He was one of more than 50 bus drivers who drove thousands of miles to get to the State AA-C Track and Field Meet on Friday and Saturday at the Missoula County Public Schools Stadium.
Westby sits in the far northeast corner of Montana. It's so far in the corner that it sidles up to the Montana-North Dakota state line – State Line Road, of course.
"We get a kick when we hear people from this side of the state that call Billings eastern Montana," Olson said. "That's south-central. They don’t even know eastern Montana.”
Olson has been driving buses for Westby student-athletes for 20 years. He's a farmer and was an assistant basketball coach for a few years. His three children went to Westby, the youngest one graduating last year (Cooper Olson, who now plays on the Montana State University basketball team).
There are no specific traditions on the long bus rides, Olson said, except for sleeping (the students, not Olson). What's become a tradition, in a sense, is how many miles they travel in a season – since they keep winning.
They took off at 7 a.m. Wednesday and made the longest leg of their trek to Bozeman, about 500 miles. There, the 12 athletes worked out on the intramural fields, and rested for the night. It was go-time again at 7 a.m. Thursday, finishing with another 200-mile trip to Missoula. They climbed the "M" trail and got acquainted with Missoula's track.
"They're great kids," Olson said. "You get to know them, a lot of them when you have children, too. They’re friends of your children, you know. A lot of them have been to your house. We’re pretty close.
“Everywhere we go we get complimented, that they’re so polite, in all the restaurants and hotels. That’s what they say, that ‘We love when Class C comes to town, because everybody’s so polite.’ "
Most of the bus drivers are not just bus drivers.
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“Up there you have to wear so many hats,” Olson said. “A lot of us are coaches or teachers or something. Everybody has to kind of chip in. In a small school, everybody does everything. You wouldn’t have anything just because you don’t have enough numbers for these bunch of kids to do this and this, so everybody is involved in everything.”
That rings true for Plentywood, too, which is 25 miles west of Westby. Their bus driver is a teacher, and one of their track coaches is also the Sheridan County Sheriff, Heidi Williamson.
Agriculture teacher Casey Osksa drove the team of 12 Wildcats to the state track and field meet. He’s been teaching 29 years, and driving buses of athletes off and on that entire time. It became more of a steady “job” for him about a decade ago, though, when his first child started competing in middle school.
“The very first time they were short and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this?’ It was a track meet,” Osksa said. “I said, what am I going to do at a track meet, you know? It’s going to be boring. And at that first meet, I thought, this is cool! It’s like a three-ring circus. There’s stuff going on everywhere. It was a lot of fun.”
This weekend, his twin freshmen, Brenna and Bryce, were competing. Their mother, first grade teacher Dona Osksa, was also part of the action, shooting photos for Sheridan County News.
“It’s awesome to get paid to go watch your kids perform and do their thing,” Casey Osksa said.
He’s driven the kids to every single track meet this year except for one. Osksa is also the FFA advisor, and had to go to the state convention.
“All year long, it’s get up early, get on the bus and most of the kids sleep, ‘cause we usually have to leave at 5:30 in the morning or something like that to get to our meets,” he said.
For this meet, they left Plentywood at 7 a.m. Wednesday and drove 400 miles to Great Falls. On the way, they stopped in Havre to practice on their track, “and we got off just in time, right when the thunderstorm hit.” On Thursday morning, they drove the last 160-mile jaunt from Great Falls to Missoula.
“I’m very happy that this did not fall on our graduation weekend, because typically what happens is our graduation would be tomorrow (Sunday), and we would just drive straight through,” he said.
Thankfully, graduation was moved to last weekend.
“They’re a blast. They’re fun kids,” Osksa said. “That energy that they all have and they’re just fun-loving.
“It’s a little more of a family, a relaxed atmosphere.”