In the heat of competition, Kevin Ball is reminded how much fun his job is.

The Olentangy Schools bus driver recently took part in the state School Bus Driver Safety Road-e-o competition, sponsored by the Ohio Department of Education. Having qualified for the state-level competition by finishing first in the regional event in October, Ball then was named first alternate at the state event in Grove City last month. That means he could represent Ohio in the national bus-driver contest, to be held in July 2020 in Niagara Falls, New York.

Ball will compete at nationals if one of the first three finishers in Ohio is unable to attend.

"I like the challenge, testing yourself," he said. "It's fun, keeps your skills up and is a great way to meet other drivers from different districts."

Most of Ball's adult life has involved student transportation. At age 18, he began driving a campus bus at Kent State University, where he was a student. Since graduating in 2014, he has worked for five years as a public school bus driver, the past four for Olentangy.

This year is also Ball's fourth as a competitor in the Road-e-o. He has earned top honors in the region before, but 2019 marked his highest finish at states.

"It's all the best drivers in Ohio, and I know them from previous years, so I'm sweating bullets" during the competition, Ball said.

The Road-e-o includes both driving and written tests. Ball said he and some of his fellow competitors who are also his friends spent the weeks leading up to the state event quizzing each other on information from the Ohio Revised Code and school bus driver safety manuals, as well as setting up driving courses for practice.

"We are so very proud of Kevin for not only taking the initiative to participate in the Road-e-o, but for his commitment to safely transporting students," said Lori Carter-Evans, Olentangy's director of transportation.

"Kevin is a great representative of the Olentangy department of transportation," she said.

A route generalist for the district, Ball picks up open routes, often driving a different route each day. He said he has enjoyed getting to know the roads throughout the district and, of course, the students.

"I'm the first person from the schools who says 'good morning' to them," Ball said. "I like being silly and goofy with the kids, but I also like learning about them and the things they enjoy doing."

Ball is ready to represent Olentangy next summer if he gets the call. In the meantime, he said, he'll keep his skills sharp -- and keep Olentangy students safe on the roads.