When the Ocean City High School boys and girls cross-country teams -- a contingent 79 strong -- arrived at Philadelphia International Airport Thursday evening, they expected to board a Frontier Airlines flight to Orlando, where they would compete in the 23rd Disney Cross-Country Classic.
For the last two years, the teams worked tirelessly to generate the necessary funds for their trip through various fundraisers like operating multiple car washes and bagging groceries at the local Shop-Rite. These student-athletes firmly believed they earned this trip.
But their evening was about to get interesting.
"As our two buses left after school for the airport, we found out our flight, which was coming from Denver, was delayed from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.," boys coach Matt Purdue said. "Then somewhere around 9 p.m we were checking the flight tracker and found out that our flight was delayed again.
"Then we figured out that our flight would be cancelled. We went to the flight counter and they said they would refund our tickets. We told the ticket agent we have about 80 people who need to get to Disney for a cross-country race. We're really not interested in a refund. They said the next flight was not until next Wednesday."
Purdue and his fellow coaches, assistant boys coach Steve Hoffman and girls coach Trish Henry, resisted the urge to fly off the handle, which would have been understandable considering the circumstances. Instead, they raced around the terminal to find an airline which could accommodate their traveling party.
"We ran to every counter we could find," Purdue said. "The coaches and I were brainstorming about all we could do -- getting the team bus down there, breaking up the boys and girls into two different airlines... We scrambled for two hours around the airport. We figured by 10 p.m. we had to cancel the trip. We called the bus company to come back and get the kids, and we started calling the parents."
"And we gathered the kids to tell them the bad news."
Adding insult to injury, if the team did return to Ocean City, they would be driving into a nor'easter which eventually flooded the coast and would cause the school district to delay the start of school on Friday.
What the coaches didn't know is that a few of the students took to Twitter, begging everyone and anyone for help, including popular television talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
They also tweeted at Delta Airlines, and that's where our story takes an amazing turn.
"As we're walking, a man in a red jacket comes up to me and says are you some kind of high school coach," Purdue recalled. "He said I'm looking for a coach. I am a rep from Delta Airlines and our corporate office in Atlanta heard about your problem. I said to him is this some kind of joke? We have 79 people who need to get on a plane. He said I am one of the managers and we want to help your team get to Orlando. We're going to find a plane in Atlanta to get here for your team."
"He was one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. And I couldn't help thinking this is really surreal. I didn't know a major corporation would be paying attention to a bunch of high school kids."
From there, the Ocean City contingent had to clear a few hurdles. The terminal had to reopen the TSA gates. TSA agents had to be recalled back to work. The group's baggage had to be retrieved from the baggage check at a different terminal.
All that, and one more minor detail: Delta does not normally schedule flights between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.
"At this point I would say the athletes were in disbelief. They were calm and cautiously optimistic," Purdue said.
Ira Parker and Bulent Dogan were two other Delta employees who tried to make the group's situation a bit more tolerable. Parker even told Purdue that he played football at Camden and ran track for legendary New Jersey coach Martin Booker.
"Frontier and Delta both brought us snacks and escorted us to the terminal," Purdue said. "We basically didn't know if we were going to Orlando until the plane showed up from Atlanta."
Delta came through for the Ocean City runners and staff with a chartered flight. The MD88 plane it sent is an emergency aircraft, Purdue said. It is intended for corporate executives and politicians who need to travel to their destinations quickly, and for professional sports teams which are stranded by weather. The coaching staff was placed in first class, and the Ocean City contingent was in the air shortly after 4 a.m.
"You hear all these stories about how corporations can be so awful, and here are these people who were so nice and helpful," Purdue said. "At this point I was definitely in disbelief at all that happened. But we do want Delta and those men to get some positive energy. They went above and beyond.
"I was especially happy for Steve Hoffman," Purdue said. "He did all the work with the travel agent, all the logistical work, all the itinerary. One of the highlights for me was seeing things work out for him."
Ocean City's flight landed two hours later and the boys and girls teams checked in by 8 a.m.
One more problem, albeit a small one considering the ordeal they had already endured. The runners were going to get about an hour of sleep before the Disney meet began at 10 a.m.
"I reminded the kids of one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Paine: These are the times that try men's souls," Purdue said. "The coaching staff always says don't over-analyze the race. Well, I don't think they had any time to think about it."
The Ocean City kids made the most of their experience. The boys varsity team, led by individual medalist and senior Erik Sacramento (18:07.2), claimed the top six spots and won the "Hercules" race with a perfect score of 15 points.
The Ocean City girls varsity, paced by sixth-place finisher and senior Casey McLees (20:28.6), finished second in the "Jasmine" race.
In addition, the JV boys won their race and the JV girls team placed fourth.
"Even if we hadn't run well -- and I certainly would have understood if the kids didn't do well -- the fact that we made it to Orlando safely and we got to meet some of the nicest people who helped us get a flight taught us all a lesson," Purdue said.
"You know there are guardian angels out there, but you never know. All I can do is tell the kids to do good things and be good people and every once in awhile everything comes back."