After much suffering, there is smiling.
With 15:36 left in Air Force’s breezy, at times sloppy 62-50 win over Fresno State, Falcons forward DeLovell Earls found center Taylor Broekhuis with a perfectly timed pass.
Broekhuis survived a whack to the head, scored and immediately turned to offer thanks to Earls. Many in the small, loud, loyal crowd of 2,009 were standing and shouting as coach Dave Pilipovich tossed a celebratory right fist.
“We’re just having a lot of fun right now,” Earls said, “and that’s always good.”
Earls grew up in Colorado Springs. He remembers success for Air Force’s basketball program, which included two trips to the NCAA Tournament and a Mountain West regular-season title.
And he’s watched from the bench for brutally bad times. Over the past three seasons, Air Force has lost 36 of 46 conference games.
A sense of hope has returned to Air Force, and with good reason. The Falcons are 4-2 in the MW, and they dropped Fresno’s befuddled Bulldogs with relative ease.
Hate to bring reality into the discussion, but that’s part of my job. On Saturday, the Falcons play No. 22 San Diego State at Clune, and this game could slow Air Force’s encouraging, surprising rise. No. 20 New Mexico, Las Vegas and Colorado State follow in quick order.
The Falcons could battle diligently in those four games, rise to their collective potential.
And lose four times.
Earls didn’t flinch.
“Every game in the league is winnable for everybody,” he said. “We have a good chance to keep having fun.”
Pilipovich was quick to offer his solution for the San Diego State challenge. After complimenting the crowd that gathered at Clune Wednesday night, he asked for more.
He wants more fans for Saturday’s game, more noise, more proper hostility.
“They deserve a great crowd,” Pilipovich said of his players.
He hopes those players trot through the tunnel before Saturday’s game and look up to see thousands of new friends. For years, several hundred fans have remained stubbornly loyal to the Falcons, despite all the losses and the turmoil.
Maybe the loyalists will have company Saturday. We’ll see. I was surprised by all the empty seats at Clune on Wednesday. Converting doubters to believers – and ticket buyers – might take more time.
“We got more seats,” Pilipovich said. “We got more seats that need dusting off.”
Those who have been staying home are not the only doubters. Air Force is directed by four seniors – Broekhuis, Michael Lyons, Todd Fletcher and Mike Fitzgerald – who have been toughened by failure.
The quartet all remain skeptical, and that’s good news.
“We need to not get too emotional over these four wins,” Lyons said. “We’ve got to work.”
That’s true. And that’s a reason why the good times, against all odds, could continue.