BILLINGS — The first road trip of the season had the Laurel soccer team worried before they left - because they didn't know if they would even get to leave.
"We ended up last-minute getting three travel vans and the coaches had to drive," said senior Grace Wagner's dad Matt.
Just hours before they were supposed to head to Hamilton and Columbia Falls, the team still couldn't find a bus driver. A last-ditch idea saved the defending State A champions from having to forfeit.
"It was a close call for us missing some of our first couple games," Wagner said.
It’s getting closer by the day, for almost every school in the state feeling the pinch of a bus driver shortage that is affecting high school sports teams at an alarming rate.
"We’ve had some of this issue for the past couple of years, but nothing like this," said School District 2 activities director Mark Wahl, "and we’re anticipating it getting worse."
So far, no SD2 high school games have been canceled. But the maneuvering never seems to end.
"We're going to have to use Mondays and Wednesdays, which we haven’t done in the past, to get games in," Wahl said. "Sometimes teams will have to play three games in a week, or sometimes two in a row when they aren't expecting it."
A lack of bodies isn't the only issue. New transportation safety regulations mean the current drivers aren't able to work as often.
"A driver can only work 15 hours a day, and can only drive 10 in a day," said Jeff Day, the Montana Operations Manager of Jefferson Lines who's based in Billings. "For sports trips, some of them will leave at 6:00 a.m. to go to a place like Great Falls and may not get back until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. at night."
Like SD2, Jefferson has also been able to find a way to complete every route the district has asked of them, even running more buses than their contract states according to Day. Jefferson has also helped Laurel's school district on occasion this season.
The first solution for now though? Find more drivers. Day currently has two full-time openings and is always looking to hire reliable part-time help.
"If they’re motivated, they could be driving in 6-8 weeks,” he said.
The process is fairly simple. You have to take a written CDL permit test at a Montana driver’s license station. Once you pass, submit an application with a company like Jefferson, and they’ll provide training until you’re ready to take the state driving test. Once you pass that, you’re good to go.
But many parents would opt for solution two: drive their kids themselves. Kalispell Glacier High School has already enacted it for its soccer program.
"We were all willing to drive the hours we needed to so the girls could play," Wagner said of Laurel's initial trip.
“I hesitate for equity issues," Wahl countered. "There are some families that can’t do that. Both parents have to work, so they simply cannot transport their kids."
Liability also makes that a big hurdle. But schools may have to jump it for the greater good.
"These kids deserve to play," Wagner said. "They're put the work in every day every school. They deserve to play, and we need to do everything we can to make that happen."