Air Force women’s tennis couldn’t create the moment it envisioned on Friday, but all is most certainly not lost.
Despite falling to New Mexico 4-1 (the final two matches weren’t completed after the Lobos clinched the dual) on Friday, the Falcons shared a piece of their first Mountain West division championship. Their 4-1 league record places them in a three-way tie with New Mexico and Wyoming.
However, the ultimate goal was to win next week’s Mountain West tournament, and there’s still a strong chance the Falcons will enter that as the top seed despite Friday’s loss.
“I’m going to say right here in writing that this is maybe the best thing that could have happened to us going into the conference tournament,” Air Force No. 1 singles player T.J. Fumagalli said.
“You don’t go to the NCAAs for being undefeated in the regular season.”
Coach Kim Gidley shared the same sentiment, noting she’s more fired up now for the tournament than she had been entering Friday.
Added Ashleigh Harvey, whose loss at No. 5 singles officially clinched the day for New Mexico, “It’s not fantastic that we lost, but that we’ve been able to have that experience before conference. ... Especially for the freshmen; they’re not used to losing. We lost all the time last year. This year we’re like a winning team, so I think it’s good for us to take on that perspective and shift our mindset a little bit.”
For the early part of Friday, it looked like the winning would continue for a Falcons team that had won six straight and had its only setback during what is now a 21-2 season at No. 7 Kansas.
Air Force, playing in front of a crowd of about 200, took the doubles point by winning two out of three. Then, the singles began.
“We had the crowd,” Gidley said. “We had the weather. We had all the things we needed, but we just fell short.”
There was confusion throughout the day as to what the scores were, which proved frustrating for an Air Force team that had played primarily indoors this season with the luxury of scoreboards.
It wasn’t until late in the dual that the Falcons learned they had lost the first three singles matches to fall behind 3-1. There was suddenly no more room for error. Of the three matches remaining, Fumagalli and Nadeen Lieberman each had a one-set lead, but Harvey was down 6-4, 5-4 with her opponent serving for the match.
“I had no idea until the call came over on the sidelines,” Harvey said. “Then I was like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
A few years ago Harvey discovered the Air Force Academy in an online search from her native New Zealand. A day-in-the-life video intrigued her when it showed a cadet sky diving and rock climbing. Upon learning the academy had a tennis team, and that her mother's U.S. citizenship would allow her to enter and be commissioned in the U.S. Air Force, she added it to a list of applications that included Dartmouth.
And now, here she was, the last hope for an unbeaten conference season for Air Force. Harvey quickly jumped ahead 15-40 in a bid for a match-changing service break, but she then lost momentum and the day ended on an ace.
“It could have gone either way and both teams played very tough and we’re just lucky to get away with a win,” said New Mexico interim coach Vicky Maes. “Any given day that could have been the other way around.”
The environment impressed Maes, who had spent nearly 20 years as the head coach at Arizona before going to New Mexico.
"What I love about this conference is coaches are respectful, players are tough, everybody’s fair," she said. "I come from the Pac-12, and this has been an incredible change for me in terms of how it’s really a lot about sportsmanship and about the sport itself and not about pettiness and winning at all costs. It’s really been a fun year with my group getting to know that and the conference."
Among those in attendance for Air Force were athletic director Nathan Pine, as well as former athletic directors Jen Block and Hans Mueh. Basketball coach Dave Pilipovich was there, as was former superintendent Michael Gould and several members of the football and basketball teams.
Those gathered came to see if Air Force could claim its first Mountain West title for a women's team sport. In the end, a share of that division title did happen, but not in the style anybody on the home side wanted.
Air Force could still enter next week’s conference tournament in San Diego as the No. 1 seed, and it could face New Mexico again in the semifinals as the Lobos expect to draw the No. 4 or 5 seed.
So if it felt unfinished business remained on Friday, it won't be there for long.
“You cry about it for 10 minutes, then you shake it off,” Fumagalli said. “I’m telling you, this is going to spark us.”