All sports at Air Force Academy have recruiting challenges. The academic guidelines are strict, and medical and weight restrictions cut out other prospective players.
The women’s coaches deal with all of those issues, and have to field competitive teams at a school which is only 20.1 percent female, meaning there are about 880 women out of 4,400 total enrollment. That’s not easy.
Many of Air Force’s women’s teams have struggled to win consistently in the Mountain West Conference. In the past year, the women’s basketball and volleyball coaches were fired. The Falcons’ women’s basketball team hasn’t won a conference game since the 2007-2008 season, and the volleyball team went winless in conference play five of the past six seasons. In 2005 it went 1-15.
Other Falcons women’s teams have struggled to post winning records.
“I didn’t get any phone calls from a top basketball player saying they wanted to be a fighter pilot,” said Marti Gasser, who spent 15 years coaching Air Force women’s basketball before becoming an associate athletics director in 1998.
Gasser said although the women’s teams face challenges others in the Mountain West don’t, she thinks Air Force women’s athletics can be competitive. After all, the Falcons are relatively new to Division I, having made the transition in 1996. Some sports have provided a positive example.
This season tennis had its first ranked player, Tahlia Smoke, and also finished with its first winning record since 2003. Track and field hasn’t had a lot of team success, but individuals have stood out. Sara Neubauer and Ally Romanko will compete at the 2010 NCAA outdoor championships this month in the discus and shot put, and 800-meter run, respectively.
Scott Irving is the associate head coach for the track team, with an emphasis on the throwing events. He recruited Neubauer, and of the 11 times a female track athlete has advanced to the national championship finals for Air Force, he has coached nine. He joined the Falcons staff in 1999, and said in the past there was a defeatist attitude among some coaches.
“I was tired of hearing, in the past – I haven’t heard it recently – coaches say ‘We shouldn’t have gone Division I, we should have stayed Division II,’” Irving said. “That grates on me. That tells me they don’t think they can have success here because of the impediments.
“Too many people have looked at it as a challenge rather than an opportunity. This place is incredible. I think it’s the pinnacle of higher learning.”
There are legitimate disadvantages. Aside from premier sports like hockey, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and football, coaches also have to teach classes. And the pool they recruit from is small because of admissions. Air Force has to compete with Ivy League schools, Army and Navy for a small group of players. They can’t take transfers, international students and very few junior-college players, all of which many Mountain West teams in various sports have used to their benefit. And once they get a player, coaches can’t push players too hard in practice because of their other commitments as cadets.
However, all of the coaches interviewed talked about needing to use Air Force’s advantages to their benefit. Irving used to coach at Oregon, Florida and Florida State, and said he had to recruit students with partial scholarships – track and field often chooses to split its scholarship allotment among many athletes - sometimes offering just enough money to cover books. All students at Air Force have full scholarships and a stipend. Irving said that made recruiting easier for him at Air Force than when he coached at big-name schools.
Also, because of military training, players should have a mental and physical toughness that surpasses other athletes in the conference.
“We use the things they do on a daily basis to give us success,” tennis coach Kim Gidley said.
Air Force coaches can pitch the other advantages of attending the academy, but the trick is getting high school girls interested in coming. Tennis coach Kim Gidley estimated 90 percent of her players had no intention to go to Air Force before the recruitment started. All coaches agreed that although not many girls grow up thinking about Air Force, they feel good about getting a commitment if a student visits the campus.
“We find when they come on a campus visit there’s as much enthusiasm from the women as the men,” Air Force track and field coach Ralph Lindeman said.
Some coaches have found ways to build, finding a niche in recruiting. Gasser said even though Ardie McInelly was fired as women’s basketball coach, she left the program in much better shape than when she started the job. Irving – whose efforts to find top-notch throwers are hindered by Air Force’s size requirements - has had success finding athletes like Neubauer, who play multiple sports in high school and can flourish when concentrating on one in college. Gidley has developed a pipeline in Texas. Five of her players last season were from there.
Lindeman said he lets the prospective cadets spend a lot of time on their visits with the athletes themselves, so they can ask questions about the life at the academy. Romanko said military life isn’t always easy, with the vast time commitments and physical and mental challenges, but she sells the academy well. She points out its various programs and the friends she has made.
“It’s been a great experience and I would definitely do it again,” Romanko said.
There seems to be more urgency in fielding winning women’s teams. Two coaches were fired in the past year. McInelly declined comment when reached. Former volleyball coach Penny Lucas-White, who is now at Hutchison School, a college preparatory girls’ school in Memphis, did not return a message.
Whether or not Air Force can overcome its disadvantages to contend in the Mountain West in female sports remains to be seen, but the desire is there.
“If we were in the Patriot League we’d probably win it, be at the top of the conference every year in every sport, but we’re not,” Gasser said. “I think we have the resources to compete in the Mountain West.
“It’s going to take baby steps, and we have to start seeing that. That’s why we made changes. I think it can happen.”
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A LOOK AT SOME TEAMS
Air Force women’s athletics haven’t had much recent success. Here’s a look at how some of the academy’s women’s teams have done recently:
Basketball: Hasn’t had a winning season since 1995, when it was still Division II, and had only two seasons in the last decade in which it won more than seven games.
Cross country: After five straight third-place finishes in the Mountain West, cross country hasn’t finished in the top three of the conference in six straight years.
Fencing: This year Heather Nelson and Simone Barrette qualified for the NCAA championships, the first time since 2005 Air Force was represented by two women fencers. Barrette finished ninth, the highest ever for an Air Force woman fencer.
Soccer: Just 4.6 wins per season in the 2000s, with a low mark of 2-15-1 in 2009.
Swimming and diving: Since joining the Mountain West in 1999, Air Force’s highest conference finish is fifth (once), with three straight ninth-place finishes.
Tennis: Six straight losing seasons before posting a 16-11 mark in 2010.
Track and field: Though there have been some individual All-Americans, the Falcons have finished higher than seventh at the Mountain West outdoor championships only once and haven’t finished higher than seventh in the indoor championships.
Volleyball: Coach Penny Lucas-White had a 97-302 record in 14 seasons before she was let go late last year.