It's fall ball season. Hope springs eternal. Everyone is 0-0 and in the hunt for the natty.
As such, we're checking in with programs across the country and divisions to see what's happening. We're continuing with Air Force coach, Robert Koehler.
In Air Force's inaugural season in 2022, you went 4-4 with an exit in the RMLC playoffs. After this past season in which the Falcons went 12-2 and reached the semifinals, what were the main factors contributing to the rapid rise of the program? Do you anticipate that momentum continuing and what lessons have you learned along the way?
Robert Koehler: The inaugural season was rough because we had such a steep learning curve on how to join the league, uniforms, travel, etc. We were just happy getting to play some lacrosse and then we were ecstatic to make the RMLC playoffs in the first year.
We lost in the playoffs, but it was then that the players realized, if we put a little work in, we can compete against these good teams. We don’t recruit players from high school, but you would be surprised how many guys played lacrosse in high school that attend the Academy.
We got better at spreading the word that we have a club team, and we are getting more players coming to practice in the fall. The biggest lesson is it is a long year, and you can’t get burned out too early. Have fun and just try and get better every day.
As the only service academy within the MCLA, how does the cadet-athlete balance affect the team as a whole? Are there any particular challenges you face regarding being at a military academy?
RK: There are a lot of challenges being at a military academy. I understand every school has their own unique challenges, but we have quite a few.
To start, our players average 20 to 21 credit hours every semester. On top of school, they have military training in the afternoon and most of them must compete in an intramural sport a couple of times a week. The club lacrosse team does not count.
They also have military training on certain Saturday mornings, so it takes a lot of planning to schedule games around the weekends where there is military training. We only practice two times a week from 6:30-8 p.m., so the players can balance everything else.
It is rare that we ever get more than 20 guys to practice, so we very rarely get to go full field. It makes it a little harder on the coaches to try to put in new concepts when you are missing a bunch of players. We also lose players because they become instructor pilots for younger cadets, or they join special military groups, so they don’t have the time to play club lacrosse.
With the rise of recruitment and transfers across the MCLA, how do you manage the acquisition of new players each year? How does the inability to explicitly recruit high school players affect your thought process going into this upcoming season?
RK: The players do a good job of getting the word out to the rest of the Wing that we have a club team. Each fall we get a few more players than we did the year before. My thought process doesn’t change. You play with what you have and you try to exploit your strengths and get better at your weaknesses.
With the return of dynamic scorers and key defensive players, do you anticipate that this 2024 team will improve on last year's results? Where do you look to see the most improvement coming from last year? In graduating some key seniors, who are some players that you look to stepping into larger roles this year, and potentially into the national spotlight?
RK: I don’t know if we will improve on last year’s results. To do that, we must make it to the championship game, and I know how hard that is. There were a lot of great teams that did not do that last year. Only two teams make it to the championship game.
With that being said, I think we can be a very competitive team with the guys we have coming back and some of the new guys we got this fall. We have one of the best attackmen in the country, Mark Tang, coming back and he will have a few very talented players playing alongside him.
Zack Mobius and Gabe Forthofer returned from last year and a couple of newcomers have shown a lot of promise to be very good this year. We returned two of the best faceoff guys in the country, Nick Capannelli and Dillon Blanchard. They both won over 75 percent of their faceoffs last year.
We return three close defenseman – [William] Sonnleitner, [Grant] Clarno and [John] Isacco – and our long stick midfielder, Madigan Hiltz, who I think is one of the best in the country. We added two or three new defensemen who will also play a lot for us.
Our midfield is very solid with some returning players. We have one of the best midfielders in the country in Benny Morfit and I expect the other returners – [John] Leddy, [Trey] Downing and [Jacob] Freeman – to step into some larger roles.
We also have some freshmen who have a lot of promise. We have six goalies this fall competing for the starting job with [Ashton] Rubio, Hemingway and [Eric] Olsen returning. That is the position with the most competition this fall.
Our biggest improvement will be in our depth and at the short stick midfielder position. We made it to the semifinal game with only 19 players. We have [Mackenzie] Miller, [Michael] Antaki and [Aden] Extrand returning at short stick and 2-3 new guys who look very good this fall. I think we have a lot more depth this year, but our team has never looked the same in the spring as it has in the fall.
Under-seeded going into nationals, what mindset did you preach to the team every game as an underdog? With last year's success as an emerging force on the national level, how do you predict your team will respond to the larger target on their back?
RK: I don’t know if we were under-seeded last year. Every team in the tournament had a chance to win it. That is what I preached. We must go out and play our game and not worry about who is seeded higher.
It comes down to the fundamentals, and if we execute properly, we can beat anybody. We can also lose to anybody, and having a target on your back makes that more of a possibility. We will see how the players respond.
[Want to participate in the "Fall Check In" series as a coach or player? Email [email protected] to request your five questions]