They waited all year to get to this point. They had finally earned their stripes and won a bid to the championship tournament halfway across the country.
Then the airline canceled their flight and lost their bags. And their equipment.
The roller hockey team had taken their first season on wire-to-wire journey from formation to championships, but they were unable to get past Shippensburg University in the first round of the single-elimination tournament.
The trip was a nightmare from the start. After securing a small amount of funds from Student Government, the 11-member team booked American Airlines flights that would connect through Dallas to Colorado Springs, the site of the tournament.
When American canceled more than 3,000 flights because of maintenance issues on their MD-80 planes, the roller hockey club immediately felt the consequences.
Their Wednesday morning flight to Dallas was canceled. American put the team on a Continental Airlines flight to Miami, with a connecting flight to Denver, where they would be driven to Colorado Springs.
And then Continental canceled that flight.
“We were forced to spend an additional $150 to buy a Southwest flight to Ft. Lauderdale, then get driven to Miami to make the American Airlines Miami to Denver flight,” said team captain Brett Kotcher.
Arriving in Miami almost three hours early, the team expected everything to go smoothly.
They were wrong.
While the team went on to Denver, their bags did not.
They took the ride to Colorado Springs, and checked in to the hotel at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, a solid 12 hours later than they had expected.
The National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association was able to amend the schedule, giving the Spartans a game later in the day.
Another university loaned skates to the team, and a Colorado Springs Play It Again Sports store donated equipment to get them through their first game. They wore neon green generic jerseys.
They lost their first match, falling to St. Louis University by a score of 9-3.
Kotcher learned one major lesson from the troubles.
“I think we will at least carry on our skates because that was probably the most uncomfortable thing to do, using someone else’s skates,” he said.
At 8:45 p.m. on Thursday, their equipment arrived. By 11 p.m., they were back on the floor playing the West Chester Golden Rams. They would lose that match by a score of 9-2.
In their last round-robin game, the team fell to the University of California San Diego 9-2.
They drew Shippensburg in the elimination game, and fell 6-5 in overtime.
“No excuse for our first round loss against Shippensburg,” Kotcher said. “It was a heartbreaker.”
The experience weighed heavily on the graduating senior, and Kotcher wondered what could have happened if the flights had gone as planned.
“Those teams were better then us but I think we could have definitely given them better games, especially against St. Louis and West Chester,” he said. “St. Louis we didn’t have our equipment and were exhausted and we were even more exhausted after a 48-hour nightmare to play West Chester.”
American Airlines did reportedly give the each student a $50 voucher for clothes. Over 3,000 flights were canceled during the week because of a concern that wires could cause fires on board.
A total of 226 MD-80s were grounded during the maintenance spree.
The UT students were part of 250,000 passengers affected by the fiasco.
The FAA is investigating American’s history in this case, including their oversight of maintenance on their flights.