LAS VEGAS • Air Force seemed to finish the 2009-10 season with some momentum and — perhaps — a little hope for the future.
The Falcons picked up a feel-good victory in the Mountain West Conference Tournament play-in game over Wyoming on Wednesday, then pushed New Mexico, the league’s top seed, in the quarterfinals Thursday before falling. Two freshmen started the quarterfinal game, and another made a significant contribution.
But while all that might seem encouraging, it also, unfortunately, is all too familiar.
Substitute “2008-09” for “2009-10”, “Colorado State” for “Wyoming” and “BYU” for “New Mexico” and the first two paragraphs of this article could have been written a year ago.
Air Force seemed to have momentum and hope for the future after a brutal 2008-09 in which it went 10-21 and 1-17 against MWC foes. But 2009-10 was not much better. The Falcons went 10-21, including 2-16 against league opponents.
And while the Falcons do have some promising young players, so do the rest of the teams in the league.
Only two of 15 players on the all-MWC first, second and third teams are seniors — New Mexico’s Roman Martinez and BYU’s Jonathan Tavernari.
Regular-season champion New Mexico will lose just one starter to graduation. San Diego State returns its entire starting five. UNLV returns all but two players on its roster (both of whom were reserves) and Utah will have four of five starters back. Colorado State and Wyoming also were young.
“This league is unforgiving,” Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said. “And when I say that, it’s not just New Mexico. It’s San Diego State, it’s BYU. It’s an extremely young league.”
Yet there are some reasons to think the momentum and hope generated by the Falcons’ play in the conference tournament might not unravel in 2010-11 like it did this season.
First is faith that Air Force won’t have the defections and injuries it dealt with this year. Two freshmen from the 2008-09 team transferred, including talented 6-foot-9 forward Trevor Noonan. But this season’s freshmen seem likely to stay. They have said they want to be a cornerstone class, like the Class of 2007 that was the backbone of the Falcons’ glory years from 2003-07.
And it’s hard to believe the Falcons will deal with as many injuries as they did this season. Center Sammy Schafer missed all but the first three games with post-concussion symptoms, and six other players combined to miss 33 games, including guard/forward Taylor Stewart and forward Grant Parker, who missed 13 and 10, respectively.
“I certainly hope (the 2010-11 season) can be different,” Reynolds said, “You don’t ever want to go through that as a coach anywhere.”
Then there are the players expected to return. Last season the Falcons graduated three seniors who accounted for 60.5 percent of the team’s scoring. This year they’ll lose four seniors, but only Parker was among the top five scorers.
In the quarterfinal loss to BYU a year ago, three seniors scored 52 of Air Force’s 69 points. On Thursday, seniors scored just eight of the 69 points, while juniors Tom Fow and Evan Washington had 17 and 11, respectively, and freshmen Michael Lyons and Todd Fletcher had 15 and 12, respectively.
“The majority of my teammates that were playing were freshmen and sophomores,” Washington said after the loss to New Mexico. “So the future’s looking bright for us.”
It is. But it was last year, too.