HIGH POINT, N.C. — They were only 89 ticks left on the clock at the scoreboard at Vert Stadium when Air Force Academy goalkeeper Braden Host secured a ground ball and the Falcons signaled for a timeout.
Bill Wilson’s side trailed by one goal in the Southern Conference tournament semifinals. The next few moments would be the Falcons’ last chance to equalize with Richmond, a team it had beaten by seven scores less than three weeks ago.
The ball would fall into the possession of Trey Lervick, Air Force’s leading scorer. He wiggled loose from the Spiders defense twice to get shots off. The first clanked off the post and the second sailed wide.
“I would’ve liked a couple of those shots back,” Lervick said after the game, Air Force’s last of the 2019 season.
After Lervick’s second attempt, the Spiders grabbed the ball and never relinquished possession. When the final buzzer sounded, Air Force – the co-regular season champs of the SoCon – were defeated.
For the Falcons, there was no tomorrow. It was win the SoCon or sit out the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. With only 17 spots up for grabs, a two-bid SoCon proved to be only wishful thinking, despite Air Force’s solid resume. The Falcons boarded a flight some 1,600 miles back to Colorado Springs, their season over.
“It was nothing special that (Richmond was) doing, we just didn’t get some good bounces that we needed to and we weren’t making some plays that we needed to,” Lervick said. “They played a good game. We fought hard; it just wasn’t enough in the end.”
Problems for Air Force against Richmond began early. In the first quarter, the Falcons turned the ball over six times while the Spiders took a one-goal lead. The game would be tied at halftime, and the Air Force briefly took a one-goal lead in the fourth quarter, via Lervick’s second score of the day.
But the Falcons’ defense – statistically the best in the country, allowing just eight goals per-game – couldn’t stop the Spiders from coming. Richmond found the back of the cage twice in the final period to capture the win.
“It was definitely ball pressure. Their poles got out a lot and after us,” Falcons’ sophomore defender Vince Lombardi said. “I think we started to handle it well in the second half, maybe a little too late. There was a lot of off-ball movement with their attackmen. They’re an attacking-first team and they executed better than we did.”
Lomabardi – who, by the way, is not related to that famous football coach, he says – thinks that his Falcons were feeling themselves a little too much at the start. After all, this was Richmond, who Air Force easily beat in the regular season. There were bigger fish to fry, like the High Point Panthers.
Simply put, the Falcons overlooked the Spiders just a bit. In the postseason, that can’t happen.
“We came out a little too cocky and a little flat. We got to come out more fired up,” Lombardi said. “You felt an atmosphere like we were looking forward to High Point a little bit, and that’s never good.”
Said Lervick: “Nothing’s the same as the regular season. You can never really count on two games being the same. It’s tough to beat a team twice.”
Air Force lost. The NCAA tournament will be played without the Falcons.
But here’s the good news: heading into the 2020 season, there are boundless reasons to be optimistic about what’s next for the Air Force men’s lacrosse team.
In Wilson’s second-season at the helm – and his first as the full-time head coach – the Falcons were one of the best defensive teams in the country. Not only did they lead the nation in least goals allowed per-game, but they were 18th in forced turnovers, causing 9.27 per-game, and they were 12th in man-down defense, stopping their opponent from scoring 71.4 percent of the time. They were also among the top 45 teams in the country in clearing percentage and ground balls.
The defense was anchored by senior Brandon Jones, the SoCon Defender of the Year. He was 18th in the country in caused turnovers, rattling opponents to force 1.93 cough-ups per-game. He won’t be easy to replace.
“Really big shoes to fill in Brandon Jones,” Lombardi said. “He’s just outstanding at what he does.”
But around Jones this season were stout underclassmen in Lombardi and freshman Quentin Carlile, who was 45th in the nation in forced turnovers per-game (1.53) and was named to the All-SoCon Second Team and the All-Freshman Team.
In addition to those defenders, one of the top goalkeepers in the country will be back too, in Braden Host. He had the best goals-against-average in all of Division I men’s lacrosse, letting in just 7.75 shots per-game. He was also 37th in the country in save percentage, stopping 51.3 percent of the attempts fired at him.
“There’s definitely a positive outlook going forward,” Lervick said. “We got a lot of young talent. We have a lot of weapons, a lot of guys who can fill in these roles.”
On the offensive end, three of Air Force’s five top scorers will return next season, including Lervick. He scored 36 goals in 2019 and assisted on 17 others for a team-high 53 points. An All-SoCon Second Team selection, he powered an offense that was 33rd in the country in assists, dishing out 6.67 per-game, and 12th in man-up offense, scoring 43.2 percent of the time in those situations.
A 6-foot native of Woodbury, Minnesota, and a member of Cadet Squadron 29, Lervick comes from a family crazy about sports. His dad played collegiate hockey, his mom played collegiate softball and his sister Bailey played soccer at North Dakota State. With a commitment to service coming after graduation, Lervick knows that 2020 will likely be his last year holding a pole and scoring goals.
“There’s a lot I’d like to improve on,” Lervick said. “The biggest thing is leadership. I want to be able to step up and try to take a lot of guys under my wings a little bit more and make the most of my senior year.”
While Lervick, Lombardi and most of this squad is coming back for hopefully a bigger and better 2020, they will have a giant void at the face-off X. Trent Harper had the fifth best face-off winning percentage in the country, taking victories in 66.8 percent of his battles. The senior was a stellar FOGO man. Against Richmond, he won 14-of-17 bouts at the X.
Air Force will also have to replace Roland Wheeler IV, the All-SoCon First Team selection at short-stick midfielder.
“Every day in practice, (Harper has) going against the back-up guys. So, those guys have been getting better. It’s some pretty big shoes to fill, but I think he’s prepared them pretty well,” Lombardi said. “Every single senior had a key component on this team and paved the way for us. Next year, we just got to keep going.”
Despite not making the NCAA tournament, Air Force was still one of the better teams in the country. They went 10-5 overall and 6-1 in SoCon play, suffering their lone regular season conference loss to High Point. This was an impressive turnaround from the Falcons’ 5-10 campaign in 2018.
The Falcons beat two NCAA tournament teams this season in Marist and Richmond, and three of their five losses came against Denver, Yale and High Point – all ranked teams. The one bad loss on Air Force’s resume was to Utah, which won just five games in its first season of Division I lacrosse.
“This conference is super tough. It might not be all traditional hotbed areas for lacrosse, like Maryland and New York, but there’s a lot of gritty players,” Lervick said. “The SoCon is a good, gritty conference. There’s a lot of talent.”
Air Force helps make the SoCon a solid lacrosse conference. And next year, the Falcons’ goal is to be the conference’s representative in the NCAA tournament.
The way Lervick and Lombardi talk, anything short of winning the SoCon and appearing in the Big Dance would be a failure. Don’t count on the Falcons’ tournament drought to last for another season.
“Last year, it ended against Richmond. This year, it ended against Richmond,” Lombardi said. “You just have that burning feeling in your heart, and it’s going to be motivation for next year.
“We got to come out flying.”