#SeniorNight: Air Force Team Handball Class of 2020

Handball Athletes, Future 2nd Lts and Air Force Pilots
L to R (Brian Brown, Nate Luther, Mark Simpson, Richard Vaughn, Austin Faulkner and Will Walker. Other Club Seniors headed to pilot training are Anthony Sanders and Pen Pagel)

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt has been using his Sports Center platform to honor High School and College Seniors who didn’t get to finish their final season. I respectfully submit Air Force Team Handball’s Eight Graduating Seniors for #SeniorNight.

A lot can happen in just a month. A lot.

Air Force Team Handball: Just One Month Ago

On February 28-29, 2020, I had the opportunity to watch Air Force go 4-0 to take the title in their own Air Force Invitational. I had seen them play several times in the past few years and without a doubt I had never seen them play so well. A comprehensive 26-18 victory over North Carolina on Saturday and then an exciting last second, 28-27 victory over Dallas THC (Video) to take the title on Sunday.

Solid defense, smart shots on offense, limited turnovers. Individually some fine play, but clearly a collective team performance. After their victory over Dallas I made a point of telling the team that it was the best I’d seen an Air Force team play in years and made a prediction that was actually more of a declaration:

“Play like you did this weekend and you guys will beat West Point and win a national title.”

A bold statement since West Point has won 14 straight national titles and Air Force hasn’t beat them since 2008. Bold, but one that I stand by and not just because I’m a biased AF Academy graduate. In a different world maybe I would be sitting right now in the Columbus, OH airport writing about such a victory in the recently completed Gold Medal match at the 2020 College National Championships.

But, that’s not the world were living in now. And, it sucks… It sucks big time. Sucks for any handball player from any school that would have played in the Collegiate Tourney this past weekend. Sucks especially for the seniors.

For the eight graduating seniors at Air Force and the journey they’ve had it’s surely been really tough. Most of these eight seniors have been playing handball together all four years. They went from basic cadets with little or no knowledge that handball even existed as a sport to passionate athletes that have bonded over four years of practice and competition. The Collegiate National Championships would have been the culmination of that journey. One last opportunity to play for a title.

Like everyone the Cadet’s lives were upended by the Coronavirus Pandemic. But, this past month they’ve also been impacted in additional ways.

Just two weeks after the AF Invitational the Air Force Academy cancelled Spring Break. Most of the Air Force team had been looking forward to a trip to the Netherlands for a training camp and competition. Unlike most colleges, however, not everyone was sent home. Instead, just the Freshman, Sophomores and Juniors were sent home while the Seniors remained on campus to help ensure their on time graduation and entry into the Air Force. Additionally, to facilitate social distancing, all the Senior Cadets were moved into their own dorm rooms spread out as much as possible in the Academy’s two dorms. Classes then resumed online and for the seniors it became a surreal existence as the roughly 1,000 cadets left on campus were essentially “alone” together with strict limits on any interaction.

Needless to say this was not an ideal situation and when last week 2 cadets committed suicide within 3 days of each other the Air Force went into crisis mode. After much discussion social distancing rules were relaxed and it was decided to speed up graduation to April 18th. To give you some idea of the extraordinary times we live in this is the first service Academy to graduate early since West Point had cadets do so during World War II.

So now the 8 seniors will graduate early and all 8 will be headed to pilot training. (Contrary to what you might think not everybody who goes to the Academy becomes a pilot and for 100% of a sports club team to do so is kind of special.) Being a pilot is surely a dream and goal they’ve been working towards many years before heading to the Academy.

The minor downside for these 8: Being an Air Force pilot and continuing your handball career isn’t an easy or practical thing to do. Perhaps some of these guys will find their way to an open club nationals on down the line, but more likely than not several have played not just their last collegiate handball match, but their last handball match ever.

In a different world that last match would have taken place this past weekend. That’s a bummer… for them… for you… for me… for everybody.

On the plus side. These eight are going to be serving our country for years to come. And, we couldn’t ask for a better group of young men to do so.