By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
HUDSON – It was a couple hours before kickoff for the Hudson Tigers, and head coach Tom Saylor didn’t think his team was focused enough.
“It was early on in our winning streak,” said Saylor. “Everybody was kind of laughing and just not thinking about the game. I told them to get on the bus and we drove right out of town, past the cemetery and I think we drove clear to Clayton (a town about six miles away). The players were thinking, ‘What is this guy doing?’”
The home game for Hudson turned into a road game – complete with a bus ride. A tradition was born.
“I thought we played better on road games,” said Saylor, who coached the Tigers through their record-setting 72-game win streak during the 1970s. “There weren’t so many distractions.”
Friday night, Hudson’s players will board the bus once more this season and take the trip from the high school locker room into downtown Hudson to Thompson Field, where the Tigers play their home games. Hudson will take on Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in a Division 7 District championship game.
The head coach now is Chris Luma, who was a quarterback for Hudson during part of that win streak. He said the bus ride is a little shorter these days, but remains a surreal moment for all Tigers players and coaches.
“Coach Saylor liked to only make right turns,” Luma said. “That was his thing. We’d go out of the school and only make right turns to get to the field. Now, we just come out of the school, go down Maple, go right past my house and turn and go to the stadium. It’s about a five-minute ride.”
And it takes place in total silence.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Tigers running back Malik Ray, who has more than 1,500 yards rushing. “It’s a really different experience. It’s legit. We get on the bus and some kids pray and others just think about the game. We don’t have time to mess around. Once we hit the seats, it’s go time. There’s no joking around. No way.”
Luma said every so often a young player will board the bus and talk or say something and a captain will quickly let him know the bus ride is done in silence.
“I’ll get on the bus, count them up and make sure we have everybody and give them the look,” he said. “It’s all quiet. We drive to the stadium, pull up and the players get out and go to the shed. Everyone has their own routine.”
Hudson has been home to a lot of big games on Friday nights over the years. The Tigers’ tradition is well known. Hudson held the national high school football winning streak record of 72 games for 22 years. Thompson Field has been the site of a lot of those Hudson wins and impactful games.
“The place has held more huge games than any other venue in Lenawee County over the past 60 plus years,” said Hudson sports historian Bill Mullaly. “Thompson Field has been around since 1955, and there have been many exciting, thrilling and very meaningful games played there with upwards of 5,000-plus people watching, especially back in the winning streak days.”
Before 1955, Hudson’s field was located in a low area right next to the current stadium, which sits on a hill in town and was moved because the old field was prone to flooding. The stadium is not on campus, somewhat atypical at the high school level.
Saylor used to live right next to the stadium, on the hill.
“I would wake up and see the stadium every morning,” he said.
Luma said the bus ride is different to the ‘home’ game than it is for an actual road game.
“When I was a player, I’d sit right next to Coach Saylor,” he said. “For road games, we’d go over my assignments, what he expected out of me. We’d talk about situations and what I should say or do in the huddle. I think those times sitting on the bus with him is one of the reasons I went into coaching.
“Riding to a home game, though, there was no talking. It’s still that way.”
Luma has had a remarkable coaching career at Hudson, winning 175 games, including a Division 7 championship in 2010. Friday will be Hudson’s second game ever against St. Mary, a traditional power from Monroe County with a couple of MHSAA championships to boast about – including its most recent in 2014, a Division 6 championship. The Falcons are competing for the first time in the Division 7 playoffs.
Ironically, both teams run the ‘T’ offense and both teams have strong rushing attacks. Hudson (9-1) was the Lenawee County Athletic Association champion while SMCC (6-4) got into the playoffs at 5-4 after navigating a difficult Huron League schedule.
No matter the weather, Thompson Field figures to be a packed house.
When it’s game time, Ray will board the bus, make the silent ride, get to the stadium and play catch for a few minutes with Hudson quarterback Andrew Valdez. When the team is ready to take the field, they’ll leave the shed and take turns with the rest of the team touching a sign above the door that says “The Team, The Team, The Team.”
Then – and only then – will it be game time.
“On the bus ride to the game, you’ll see people on the streets and they are waving at you and they are excited,” Ray said. “You can see joy in their eyes.
“Anytime you play in a playoff game, it’s a truly great experience. Playing one more game with these guys … its more than I can say.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Hudson’s players enter Thompson Field at the start of a game this season. (Middle) Malik Ray works to elude a Morenci defender during a Week 2 win. (Photos by Mike Dickie.)