For so many years, in the eyes of its mainstream sports fans, the Air Force Academy had one season football. Everything else was just filling time.
It's not that way anymore.
Air Force men's basketball already has enjoyed one renaissance in this decade, rising from a long stretch of mediocrity to a 99-41 record over the past four-plus seasons, and turning Clune Arena into a formidable pit.
Likewise, AFA hockey has blossomed since joining a conference, with a chance to earn the Atlantic Hockey Association's NCAA berth for the second straight year.
Last March provided special memories for both. On the ice, the Falcons won their conference tournament and nearly shocked Minnesota in the NCAA first round before falling 4-3. Air Force basketball settled for the National Invitation Tournament and rolled to the semifinals at New York before losing 68-67 to Clemson.
Now it's 2008, and the two AFA teams are trying to make the most of a season with ups and downs. This weekend, they'll find out a lot about themselves.
After losing almost every major contributor from the team that totaled 50 victories in the past two seasons, and then watching head coach Jeff Bzdelik jump to Colorado, Air Force men's basketball entered the 2007-08 campaign with little idea what to expect.
New head coach Jeff Reynolds had been on Bzdelik's staff, so that helped the continuity. But only a few players had meaningful experience, led by guards Tim Anderson and Andrew Henke, along with forward Anwar Johnson.
Air Force jumped to a 5-0 start against a soft schedule, sagged to 5-4, then rebounded to 8-4. After Christmas, though, two tests showed the Falcons were still in reconstruction mode. They led early at Wake Forest, then lost 78-67. In their Mountain West opener at Utah, they hit the wall in a 58-36 defeat.
As fans braced for the worst, the Falcons awakened for their biggest win, 65-53 against Nevada-Las Vegas (12-3). Anderson scored 27 points, but just as encouraging were senior center Keith Maren (nine points, six rebounds, six assists), Henke, freshman guard Evan Washington and junior forward Matt Holland.
Shooting 61.8 percent from the field against a respectable MWC opponent provided the best sign. But the Falcons will learn much more from their upcoming stretch, which started Wednesday with a huge overtime victory at Wyoming and continues Saturday at New Mexico (4 p.m., the mtn.) before home games Tuesday against Colorado State (8 p.m., CSTV) and Jan. 30 against Brigham Young.
What's a realistic goal? Winning more road games would be a start, and anything around break-even in conference play would suffice in this rebuilding season.
Deep water now
Air Force hockey coach Frank Serratore never has been afraid to speak his mind, and he's been frustrated with this team despite the Falcons clinging to first place in the AHA. Inconsistency at home has bothered Serratore, with the latest example a Saturday night 4-3 overtime loss to Rochester Institute of Technology.
That leaves the Falcons 11-7-4 overall, 9-6-3 in the league. Their closest chasers have played fewer games and could jump ahead later. Still, Air Force has the nucleus to make another run at the NCAA.
Eric Ehn, a Hobey Baker finalist last season, has only six goals in 22 games, but 18 assists put him among the AHA scoring leaders. Soph goaltender Andrew Volkening has the league's best goals-against average (2.43), and junior Brent Olson has 11 goals.
This week will show how Air Force compares to the national elite. Friday, No. 4 Denver comes to Cadet Ice Arena for a 7 p.m. faceoff. Saturday, the Falcons visit No. 3 Colorado College at the World Arena.
Beyond that, three of Air Force's final five series are on the road, starting with Army on Jan. 25-27. But facing DU and CC is good preparation for the Falcons before that stretch run. Both games are worth paying to watch.
Bits and pieces: Thumbs down to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for its mishandling of the disallowed goal by Wisconsin at the end of regulation Friday night at DU. It should've been 3-3 with overtime; the WCHA should have ruled it a tie or forced the teams to play overtime before their Saturday game. ...
After Dallas' stunning playoff loss to the New York Giants, you have to wonder again about coach Wade Phillips, who has never won a playoff game. His easygoing style works for the regular season. But at the end, when teams need a push, Phillips doesn't provide it. ... How big of a surprise was the Giants' victory? Well, the NFC's top seed had not lost at home in the divisional round since the current format began in 1990.
Back home After a decent road trip, Avalanche finishes month with five straight at Denver, starting Friday vs. Chicago.
Crazy Sunday Peyton Manning loses at home, then Eli Manning wins at Dallas.
See the headline? Dick Vitale returns to ESPN in February after surgery for vocal-cord ulcers. (Really.)
Smart move Troy Calhoun is committed to Air Force, but it's still nice to see the coach's contract extension.
NFL conference championships:
Against the spread
San Diego (taking 14) at New England
N.Y. Giants (taking 7) at Green Bay
New England, 30-17
N.Y. Giants, 23-20
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