Chris Russ’s natural inclination is to smile whenever he drives the team bus after road games, quietly laughing at all the shenanigans occurring behind him.
Several years ago, the Tivy baseball coach instituted a policy mandating that all players ride on the team bus after games. He had two reasons for creating this rule. For starters, he knew some parents had a tendency to be negative after losses and didn’t want to immediately expose his players to any criticism after games. The bus rides, then, afforded parents and their players time to cool down before discussing the game’s event.
And more importantly, he recognized that confining his players to a small space for a lengthy period of time was an effective team-building activity, an opportunity for them to share some laughs together. Russ has been around the game for 34 years — both as a player and then as a coach. He’s doesn’t remember all of the games, but he still treasures the time he spent joking around with his teammates. He hopes his players can say the same about their experience at Tivy.
“A lot of these guys may not go on to play college or professional baseball, but all these guys will remember the times they had on the bus,” Russ said. “When I was at A&M, you remember some of the things you did during games. But you mostly remember a lot of stories inside the clubhouse, on the bus and on plane rides.
“These guys will have good memories of that stuff and be able to take that with them through the rest of their lives.”
Russ believes that his everyone-rides-the-bus policy is one of his best coaching decisions at Tivy. One thing is certain: It’s a big reason why the Antlers are still in the playoffs (They begin a three-game series with Dripping Springs in the regional quarterfinals on Thursday in Dripping Springs). The Antlers (27-10) don’t have the level of talent they’ve possessed in recent years; they currently lack a Division-I player on their roster. But they’ve continued winning at a high level largely because they enjoy playing baseball together.
And those bus rides have helped forge that strong sense of team camaraderie. The Antlers remain silent during rides after loses. But when they win, they turn the yellow school bus into one of the Hill Country’s best dance clubs, never to ceasing to entertain Russ or assistant coach Gary Miears. They pump deafening music over the speakers. They practice their singing skills. When they defeated Alamo Heights in a three-game series in the area round last Saturday in Jourdanton, they rocked the bus back and forth with their movement in the parking lot.
“What happens on the bus stays on the bus, so I really can’t go into too many details,” senior pitcher Brady Delgado deadpanned on Tuesday. “But we have a good time. We keep it loose, especially if we win. … Some of the best memories are made on the bus. … We definitely have become close knit.”
And to some degree, the rowdy bus rides have contributed to the Antlers’ current run of success. Since their three-game losing streak midway in the season, they have won 10 out of their past 12 games and are collectively slashing .374/.465/.486 since April 2 (They were hitting .308/.423/.418 since that date).
The Antlers agree that the reason for the turnaround is that they are more relaxed and confident at the plate. Why is that? Because they are enjoying themselves and have stopped pressing at the plate as much.
They’re also in agreement on this matter: they hope to have another fun bus ride back to Kerrville on Thursday.
“We are having fun here right now,” sophomore catcher Travis White said after the Antlers’ Game 2 win over Heights on Saturday. “That’s the difference between now and earlier in the season. You can tell we are having fun. That’s been the main thing this season.”