David had Goliath. Luke Skywalker had Darth Vader. For Air Force lacrosse, Denver has served as the tormentor casting a shadow over the program.
It is those fifth-seeded Pioneers who await the 17th-ranked Falcons in Saturday’s first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Air Force (12-5) can make a case for inclusion in the sport’s inner circle.
The Falcons have certainly proven their worth against their peers, winning titles in the past three seasons in which they have belonged to a conference. They've also knocked off national power Duke in consecutive meetings. But it’s only in this setting that they can truly change their status on the national stage.
The program has appeared in four NCAA Tournaments, but has never advanced beyond the round of 16.
“It’d be a huge stepping stone for our team,” sophomore defenseman Brandon Jones said. “It would mean everything if we won that game.”
Denver – the 2015 national champion – has beaten the Falcons in eight consecutive seasons, including a 14-6 blowout on Feb. 11.
But since that meeting Air Force has switched goalies, installed sophomore Trent Harper into the all-important role of handling faceoffs, and has made other tweaks to its lineup and approach.
The Falcons enter the tournament riding a five-game winning streak.
“I think it just took a lot longer this year to answer that coaching-ism of, ‘Who are we as a team?’” coach Eric Seremet said. “I think it took us a lot longer this year to figure that out, and maybe we’re still trying to figure that out. Maybe this weekend’s going to show another level to us that we haven’t seen yet.”
Chris Walsch, the Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year, looks at the matchup and sees advantages for Air Force. The Falcons are familiar with Denver (11-3) and its stadium, having played at Barton Lacrosse Stadium five times over the past two seasons. Walsch expects a big crowd, which will provide energy not only for the home team but also the Falcons. Then, there’s the matter of atoning for that past performance.
“It burns a fire in us a little,” Walsch said.
Walsch was one of five Air Force players to earn All-SoCon first-team honors. Among them were two other juniors and two sophomores. So this might not be the lone shot at a breakthrough. But then again, navigating the conference schedule proved difficult for the Falcons, and there are no guarantees this opportunity will come again for this group.
Everybody knows the time for giant-slaying is now.
“This is important for us,” Walsch said. “It’s a great stepping stone.”
Air Force lacrosse NCAA history
1971 First round at Maryland L, 10-1
1988 First round at Loyola L, 19-8
2014 Play-in round vs. Richmond W, 13-5
2014 First round at Duke L, 20-9
2016 First round at Notre Dame L, 15-7