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Budget guzzling: Schools deal with the high cost of busing for athletics

The termination of National American University's athletics programs in Rapid City has provided a much bigger hit to Dickinson State than previously thought.

The termination of National American University's athletics programs in Rapid City has provided a much bigger hit to Dickinson State than previously thought.

National American, the two-time defending national volleyball champion, closed the door on its athletics programs in March, negating the Blue Hawks biggest rival in volleyball and rodeo. Though the loss of competition hurts DSU, the biggest hit is to come in the athletic department's travel fund, where a considerably short 255-mile trip to Rapid City, S.D., might have to be replaced by a trip across the United States in an effort to find equal competition.

DSU athletic director Roger Ternes said the Blue Hawks are certainly going to miss having NAU as a rival, especially in volleyball.

"They were the best opponent in the country close to us," Ternes said. "We would play them two, sometimes three times in a season. We both had good (volleyball programs). They were in a location that was somewhat convenient."

With diesel hitting $4 per gallon, Ternes said the program has to do what it can to balance travel costs.

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"It's going to become more difficult," Ternes said. "The fuel prices have gone beyond inflation. We're trying to balance that. We can cut a (volleyball) match...It's a little easier in basketball (to cut games). In football, with a limited schedule, it's difficult for everybody."

Rising fuel prices are just one piece of the puzzle. When a team goes on the road, the athletic department covers the entire bill, which includes fuel for bus rides and hotel costs to shelter players. To offset fuel prices, Ternes said the program has resorted to cutting hotel costs whenever it can, even getting up at early hours in the morning to leave so they won't have suffer the cost of a night's stay.

"Those are the kinds of things coaches come up with," Ternes said. "(Fuel costs are) getting to be a problem all over the country. Bigger schools have bigger problems. We do what we can to make whatever savings we can."

The men's and women's basketball teams and baseball and softball teams can ride together on scheduled doubleheaders. Ternes encourages his coaches to schedule coinciding road doubleheaders to cut costs.

"Even on their non-conference schedule, I encourage coaches to look at it," Ternes said. "We're trying to look at every possible scenario with which we can do that."

Ternes has been pleasantly surprised by the amount of money saved on the recruiting end of the budget. With self-made promotional videos quickly becoming the norm for recruits whose recruiters aren't willing to spend the money to see them, money has been saved in plane rides, meals and hotels.

"We've been able to do some cost-saving...we haven't had to travel all over to recruit," Ternes said. "Not that you don't need to make those trips, but there's everything from video, DVD, on the Web...that's made that part of the travel (budget) easier."

Questions for the future

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The farthest trip for the Blue Hawks in the Dakota Athletic Conference is to Madison, S.D., where they compete against Dakota State University. In a round trip, the distance covers more than 1,000 miles. The nearest trip is Minot, a 360-mile round trip.

Ternes said a possible merger with another conference could be the answer, but that isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

"I don't see a merger happening overnight," Ternes said.

One possible merger being talked about would involve the Frontier Conference, which mostly consists of Montana schools. It's a move that could be very realistic for schools such as DSU and Minot State.

The rest of the DAC schools, however, could very well go searching for a new home as western Montana would be a exhausting drive for a school like Dakota State.

The DSU men's basketball, baseball and volleyball programs now play the University of North Dakota, an NCAA Division II school reclassifying to Division I next season. The trip to Grand Forks was favorable, considering the level of competition UND brought to the table.

With the Sioux going D-I, Ternes is positive another possible non-conference opponent has gone out the door.

"I doubt they're going to look to schedule us often," Ternes said. "For them to work on their strength of schedule, they need to play other Division I schools."

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UND's move, combined with the termination of National American's athletics program, means spending more money so DSU can find a legitimate non-conference opponent. If the volleyball team is going to find level competition, it surely is going to involve spending more time and money on the road.

"We don't have a lot of choices," Ternes said. "All of us have to make adjustments as to how we're going to fund and pay for travel."

Trinity holds tight

Area high schools also are feeling the pinch to find ways to cut costs.

Dickinson Trinity, a private parochial school, doesn't receive public funding, but has made due with the activities programs it has without overextending its budget. Trinity activities director Brad Foss said the money paid for fuel costs is something he's now accepted.

"It's sunk in as reality," Foss said. "It's become a burden on everybody. We've been able to save in other areas. We've had to take from Peter to pay Paul. We've been holding tight as of right now (but) we're looking very closely at the rising fuel prices."

Because it is a private school, Trinity must utilize other resources when an athletic team makes a state tournament. Costly fuel means Trinity must collect more from parents of children who go to the school.

"We have to find other avenues to collect funds," Foss said. "Patrons have been absolutely excellent as far as that's concerned. Patrons have stepped up and helped out with the bill."

Attendance takes a hit

Other area schools are noticing the hit attendance numbers are taking at activities because of the cost to travel.

Killdeer athletic director Bob Wheeling has been in his position for 14 years and has definitely noticed a change.

"I don't think we get the crowds that we do on our away games anymore," Wheeling said. "They might pick district tournaments to go to. As far as regular-season games go, you see parents making an effort. You don't see a lot of other people. When you do, they're usually riding together."

Wheeling said extra trips because of postseason success aren't budgeted at the beginning of the year, but the community "finds a way."

"That's something that's special and doesn't happen very often," Wheeling said. "The community's willing to step up. If we were to go, it would get done."

Supporters find ways

The school co-op of Mott-Regent is an excellent example of towns having to find extra funding because of its success. The Wildfire won the state nine-man football championship at the Fargodome last November and recently placed sixth at the Class B state boys' basketball tournament, which was also at the Fargodome. Two trips to Fargo can take a toll on a school, but Mott-Regent Superintendent Myron Schweitzer said the communities stuck together.

"We have supporters in town (who) have donated and helped pay for meals out of town," Schweitzer said.

In Schweitzer's case, other things have helped balance the athletic budget like school utilities.

"My main thing is as long as our overall budget is in line with what was approved in October," Schweitzer said. "Our heating was less (costly) than budgeted. That saved us more. We're ahead of the game as far as that goes."

Nonetheless, many schools are feeling the rope tighten around their activities budgets. Some administrators might settle with dealing with it at work, but the reality is rising fuel prices have hit everyone where it hurts the most - the checkbook.

"You have to give up the times you go out for dinner because you have to put gas in the car," Ternes said. "It's affecting us at home as well as at work."

Aarhus can be e-mailed at caarhus@thedickinsonpress.com .

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