By Greg Johnson
No road trip will be routine for a while, if ever, for the Western Kentucky women’s volleyball team. Not after what happened on October 7.
Were it not for the quick actions of coach Travis Hudson and some fortunate circumstances during a bus trip where the driver suffered a heart attack at the wheel, the team might not be playing at all.
Coach Travis Hudson
Hudson and his team were en route to a match at South Alabama, more than 500 miles from the Western Kentucky campus in Bowling Green. They were riding a sleeper coach bus, which looks like a normal charter bus on the outside but inside resembles more of a recreational vehicle, with two living room-type areas in the front and back plus a sleeping area with bunk beds in the middle.
A curtain that snaps to a close behind the diver affords the team some privacy.
At around 1 p.m., the passengers felt the bus hit the rumble strips on the left side of the southbound lanes of I-65.
“I thought maybe the driver looked away for a second,” said Hudson, who is in his 16th season at Western Kentucky. “It didn’t feel like a big deal. Then we felt the bus in the grass, and we all got concerned. We couldn’t see out of the bus because the curtain was pulled. In our wildest dreams, we couldn’t have thought of what we were actually dealing with.”
Unbeknownst to the team, the driver had collapsed and was no longer steering the vehicle. The bus went down into a grassy median, then climbed toward the oncoming traffic in the northbound lanes. Witnesses told Hudson that the bus was only a foot or two from entering the north lanes when the bus veered right, down into the median again.
As it started to go up the incline to the southbound lanes, things became chaotic on the bus.
“It threw kids out of bunks and threw tables up in the air,” Hudson said. “At that point, we knew it was big trouble.”
Hudson eventually was able to regain his balance and open the curtain. He saw the driver, whose identity hasn’t been released, still in his seatbelt but slumped to the right.
The bus was now on the grass on the right side of the southbound lanes. Hudson grabbed the wheel and eased the bus onto the emergency lane. He climbed over the driver to reach the brake and stop the runaway bus.
Players helped remove the driver from the bus, and athletic trainer Niki Koch and senior outside hitter Emily Teegarden, a nursing major, performed CPR. Someone also called 911.
“The first thing they wanted to know was where we were, and none of us knew,” Hudson said. “We weren’t even sure what state we were in. It wasn’t until a local person stopped and told us we were in Athens, Alabama.”
After the emergency personnel showed up, the team was transported to the Limestone Country Sherriff’s Office, where they waited four hours for another bus. Unfortunately, the driver later died at the hospital.
Hudson called his athletics director, Ross Bjork, and the Sun Belt Conference office to let them know of the ordeal.
“I got simultaneous calls from our athletics director and Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters,” Western Kentucky President Gary Ransdell said. “We let the team decide whether they wanted to play the matches scheduled for the trip.”
The team decided to go ahead and play South Alabama on October 8, and at Troy the next afternoon. After sweeping both matches, the team arrived in Mobile, Alabama, at 1 a.m., about 15 hours after the trip began.
Coach Travis Hudson
“I didn’t push them in either direction,” Hudson said of the team’s decision to play. “The hard part was going to be getting back on a bus after all that happened. We were going to have to get on a bus whether we played the matches or if we went back home.”
Once the decision was made, Ransdell and his wife, Julie, jumped in a car and drove eight hours to Mobile to support the team against South Alabama.
“We wanted to surprise them,” Ransdell said. “I told them how proud I was of them. That was the first time most of them, if not all of them, had to deal with someone’s death, let alone someone who had their safety in his hands. It was a traumatic experience, and they needed to know they were loved and supported by the university.”
The time on the court was therapeutic for the entire team, which carries a cumulative 3.6 grade-point average. They still had to travel another three hours on a bus to play at Troy and then another five hours back to campus.
“We found out that the hardest part was how the sounds of the bus were ingrained in our heads,” Hudson said. “A lot of times on those trips our kids crawl up in those bunks and you don’t see them again until we get to where we’re going. I don’t think anyone closed their eyes the remainder of that trip.”
Western Kentucky, which is 17-5 and 6-1 in Sun Belt Conference play entering road matches this weekend against Florida Atlantic and Florida International, doesn’t have any more long bus trips scheduled for the remainder of the season.
“We take buses to the airport in Nashville, which is about an hour and 15 minutes away,” Hudson said. “That’s where we fly out of for trips that are too far to drive.”
Needless to say, the team was emotionally spent after dealing with this incident. Counselors were made available for anyone who needed to talk about the experience.
“There isn’t a manual out there that tells you how to deal with something like this,” Hudson said. “We have always been a close-knit group. It is something we’ll have to work through together. In the back of your mind, you always worry about long bus trips when it’s late at night. But this was 1 o’clock in the afternoon. It was only by the grace of God that the bus didn’t flip over.”
Ransdell wasn’t surprised at how Hudson handled the experience.
“Travis is a terrific individual,” Ransdell said. “His values and character are off the charts.”
Ransdell added: “This could have been one of those tragedies that rocked the NCAA. On any given weekend, think about how many NCAA student-athletes are travelling across the nation. The message to all NCAA teams is be careful and have confidence in all in the companies that transport you. You can never take anything for granted.”