“Pride and Poise. Compete with Pride and Poise”. That is the phrase that Air Force head coach Sam Barber reiterates to his team last Thursday as they met before practice to discuss the logistics for the upcoming trip to the season-opening Cowboy Open. You can tell that this is not the first time that this saying has been pounded into the head of the 40-plus Cadets that comprise the Air Force team. Barber and the rest of the coaching staff go through the itinerary of the trip and then move into the “really important” topics such as food and entertainment. If the team can’t decide on a DVD’s for the bus ride Barber, a proud father of a daughter, says he’ll bring something “from the princess collection.” The team probably doesn’t need the reminder, but just in case Barber reiterates for his team to conduct themselves as “Air Force guys.” No throwing headgears, no arguing with the ref, no temper tantrums.
After the coaching staff has said their part, senior Alex Mossing chimes in with some additional information and suggestions regarding food for the first-time travelers. Mossing and fellow senior Anthony McLaughlin have been named team captains, which means they are the leaders of..well the leaders. The Air Force Academy, by nature, is in the business of training and developing leaders, so each and every member of the Falcon wrestling squad possesses leadership qualities that dwarf most other schools. Of course, the leadership is not limited to the wrestling mat. As we sit to lunch amongst 4,000 cadets, broken down into their respective squadrons, it is Mossing who is giving me the cliff notes version of the daily life of cadets, fourth-class cadets (freshmen), and the traditions associated with the Academy.
To a person, whenever I have informed someone that this is my first trek out to Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy, their first response is, “It’s a special place.” It truly is, nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountains, just an hour south of Denver, in a part of the country that gets over 300 days of sunlight a year. In fact, a couple of inches of snow were dropped in the area the day before my arrival, yet as I strolled through the campus, it was actually warmer in the Springs, than back home in Virginia. That last leg of my trip through the Academy was a visit to the airfield which houses the 98th Flying Training Squad, whose mission is to provide parachute training to cadets. Of course, the Lt. Colonel who heads up the program is an ex-wrestler who graciously gives me a tour of the facilities and gives assistant coaches Chris Heilman, Dustin Kilgore and myself a rundown on the functions of the school and the basics associated with parachuting. Since the wind speeds were measured over 18 knots, the school was shut down for the remainder of the day. If not there was the possibility that we could have done a tandem jump that same day. I seriously doubt in all of my travels that I will come across another school that could provide that sort of experience!
Now we have moved on to the wrestling facilities, and I get a chance to sit down with coach Barber. A lot of coaches and adults like to say that the current and next generation of kids are not as good, tough or hard working as their predecessors. Is this true and if so, does it hurt service academies like Air Force? Not true, it’s actually the opposite, says Barber. While sitting in his office, Barber tells me about a prominent, highly recruited member of his team that chose the Air Force Academy over a pair of traditional powerhouse wrestling programs. Why? Because he didn’t want the party atmosphere and scene that can be found at most colleges. “I think there are a lot more kids these days that want the type of structure that you can find here, ” says Barber. It may not be a coincidence that the Falcons recruiting classes have improved with talent in each of the last two seasons and the crop from the Class of 2019, is almost a sure bet to land among the top 25 nationally.
For a team that lost it’s only NCAA qualifier in 2018 to graduation and looking for their first All-American since 2003, there is plenty of optimism surrounding the Air Force program. Mossing was a member of the 2017 U23 world team in Greco-Roman and has his sights set on making Senior world teams and the 2020 Olympic team while competing with the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). McLaughlin was an NCAA alternate at 197 lbs last season, and currently gets to but heads with Kilgore, the 2011 NCAA Champion, on a daily basis. The nearby Air Force Prep School has produced 125 lber, Sidney Flores, who was a champion at the 2018 National Collegiate Open, as well as heavyweight Kayne Hutchison, who was third at the event. Flores would go on to win the Cowboy Open, while Mossing took third after losing to the number one ranked DII wrestler in the nation Matt Malcolm (Nebraska-Kearney). High Schoolers from the Class of 2019 that have already committed to Air Force include #3 Brenden Chaowanipibool (Bonney Lake, WA), #4 Wyatt Hendrickson (Newton, KS), and #20 Noah Blake (Del Oro, CA). Barber’s parting shot in our interview is for wrestling fans to remember that “if you’re an Iowa fan or a Penn State fan and your guys are not wrestling, cheer our guys on. We’re America’s team”.
Here are a series of videos that were taken on the visit to the Air Force Academy.
Assistant Coach Chris Heilman at the Cadet Chapel
Head Coach Sam Barber
157 lber Alex Mossing
197 lber Anthony McLaughlin