ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt used his sports hub platform to honor high school and high school students who weren’t able to complete their senior season. I respectfully submit the eight senior graduates of the Air Force handball team for #SeniorNight.
A lot can happen in just one month. Many.
On February 28-29, 2020, I had the opportunity to watch the Air Force go 4-0 to claim the title in their very own Air Force Invitational. I had seen them play several times over the past few years and without a doubt I had never seen them play so well. A comprehensive 26-18 win over North Carolina on Saturday, then a thrilling last-second, 28-27 win over Dallas THC (Video) to clinch the title on Sunday.
Solid defence, smart shots on offense, limited turnovers. Individually a great game, but clearly a collective team performance. After their win over Dallas I made a point of telling the team this was the best I’ve seen played on an Air Force team in years and made a prediction which was actually more statement:
“Play like you did this weekend and you will beat West Point and win a national title.”
A bold statement since West Point has won 14 consecutive national titles and the Air Force hasn’t beaten them since 2008. Bold, but one I support and not just because I’m a biased AF Academy graduate. In a different world, I might be sitting at the airport in Columbus, OH right now, writing about such a victory in the recently completed gold medal game at the 2020 National University Championships.
But that’s not the world we live in now. And, it sucks… It sucks a lot. Sucks for any handball player from any school who played in the college tournament last weekend. Especially sucks for older people.
For the eight senior Air Force graduates and the journey they have made, it has surely been very difficult. Most of these eight seniors have played handball together for four years. They went from basic caddies with little or no knowledge that handball even existed as a sport to passionate athletes who bonded over four years of practice and competition. The collegiate national championships would have been the highlight of this trip. One last chance to play for a title.
Like everyone else, cadets’ lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. But, in the past month, they have also been affected in different ways.
Just two weeks after the AF Invitational, the Air Force Academy canceled spring break. Most of the Air Force team members were looking forward to a trip to the Netherlands for training camp and competition. Unlike most colleges, however, not everyone was sent home. Instead, only freshmen, sophomores, and juniors were sent home while seniors remained on campus to help ensure their graduation on time and entry into the military. the air. Additionally, to facilitate social distancing, all senior cadets have been moved to their own dormitories spread across the two Academy dormitories as much as possible. Classes then resumed online and for seniors it became a surreal existence as the approximately 1,000 cadets who remained on campus were essentially ‘alone’ with strict limits on any interaction.
Needless to say, this was not an ideal situation and just last week 2 cadets committed suicide 3 days apart, 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 18. To give you an idea of the extraordinary times we live in, this is the first service academy to graduate early since West Point had cadets in World War II.
So now the 8 seniors will be graduating early and all 8 will be heading to pilot training. (Contrary to what you might think, not everyone who goes to the Academy becomes a pilot and for 100% of a sports club team, that’s a bit special.) Being a pilot is surely a dream and a goal they are working towards. several years before entering the Academy.
The downside of these 8: being an Air Force pilot and pursuing his career as a handball player is neither easy nor practical. Maybe some of these guys will find their way to an open national club championship on the line, but more than likely several of them played not just their last college handball game, but their last game of handball of all time.
In a different world, that last game would have taken place last weekend. It’s a disappointment… for them… for you… for me… for everyone.
On the positive side. These eight will serve our country for years to come. And we couldn’t ask for a better group of young men to do it.