(Photo Courtesy of Air Force Athletics)
Welcome to the Fall Snapshot series. Throughout the fall I will be taking an early look at all 75 DI men’s college lacrosse teams and giving a snapshot of where each is heading into the 2023 season.
Head Coach: Bill Wilson (6th year, 2018-present)
Air Force 2022 Record: 8-7 (3-2 ASUN)
Key Departures: Brenden Crouse (M), Quentin Carlisle (D), Brian Michael (FO)
Key Returners: Brandon Dodd (A, Sr.), Aiden Tolen (A, Jr.), Jason Rose (G, Sr.), Chris Bardark (Jr., D/LSM), James Chastain (Jr., D)
The Air Force Falcons are coming off a 2022 season which, in many ways, was a bounce-back year as they recorded their first winning season since 2019. Air Force ended their 2022 campaign in the ASUN semifinals with a 9-7 loss against eventual conference champion Robert Morris.
Air Force started last season with a tough stretch, scrimmaging Notre Dame and North Carolina before opening the regular season with games against Virginia, Denver, Colgate, and Jacksonville. That season-opening stretch saw the Falcons go 0-4, but once the calendar turned to March they only lost twice more in the regular-season (Utah, Robert Morris) as they were able to grab the third seed in the ASUN Tournament.
In 2023, the ASUN will look different with former SoCon foes Jacksonville and Mercer both join the league, as well as Lindenwood and Queens University Charlotte, who make the jump from DII. However, with the additions (especially Jacksonville) will make the league more competitive than it was in its first season back on the men’s stage, Air Force should still be expected to compete at a high level within the league.
Last spring, Air Force saw two sophomores starting on defense and two of their top five point-getters were freshman while another was a sophomore. With multiple young players having gotten experience already, continued growth should be expected from the Falcons in 2023.
Can the Defense Continue to Improve?
After a 2021 campaign in which the Falcons allowed 12.15 goals per game, the Air Force defense allowed just 10.2 goals per game a season ago and held their opponent to single-digits in seven games. They ended the year ranked ninth in defensive efficiency, per Lacrosse Reference, and had the 15th-best scoring defense in DI (first in ASUN).
Quentin Carlile led the team with 38 caused turnovers and also grabbed 50 ground balls last season. A three-time All-Conference selection, he was second in the nation in caused turnovers per game (2.92) and first in the ASUN. His presence will be greatly missed. Chris Bardark (18CT, 33GB) and James Chastain (15CT,14GB) are both coming off strong sophomore campaigns and will be looked upon to step up this spring. Tommy Hellman (31GB,10CT, 3G,2A) served as the Falcons’ top defensive midfielder.
Goalie Jason Rose was the real x-factor for this Falcons team last season and having him for one more season is huge. Since taking over as the starter late during the 2021 season, Rose hasn’t left the cage. A First-Team All-ASUN selection, he made 180 saves with a 54% save percentage and ended the season amongst the top 20 nationally in save percentage. He had both an 18-save game (vs Denver) and 21-save game (vs Bryant) this past spring.
Can the Offense Catch Up?
A First-Team All-ASUN selection, Brandon Dodd was the clear-cut top option on offense for Air Force in 2022. He led the team with 70 points off 46 goals and 24 assists, and ended the season ranked eighth nationally in goals per game (3.29) and 10th in points per game (4.93). Midfielder Brendan Crouse (38G/14A) was right behind him as the Falcons’ second-leading point-getter and is the biggest hole to fill on that end in 2023. Aiden Tolen (15G/6A) was the Falcons’ third-leading point-getter as a sophomore last spring.
Despite the high-end play from Dodd and Crouse, and despite ranking 11th nationally in time of possession, Air Force was a middle of the road offense and ended the season ranked 42nd in goals per game (11.13). That included seven games in which they failed to reach double-digits.
Kyle Griffith (16G/5A) and Wes Peene (10G/5A) had solid freshman campaigns. Those two, along with Tolen and others, will likely be looked upon to take a step forward in 2023 to have this Falcons offense soar to new heights.
What Does The Faceoff Situation Look Like?
After splitting time with Dylan Frankhouser in 2021, senior Brian Michael took over as the primary option at the dot and went 123-for-246 (50%) at the faceoff dot. He is the first primary faceoff man to go at least 50% in a full season since 2019. (Ryan Lynch went 58% in the shortened 2020 season). Who will be assuming the role at the dot in 2023 will be an area of intrigue around the Falcons program this offseason.
Braden Gaab (33-for-62) appeared as the main back up as a sophomore last season. Freshman Jake Kaap and junior Dylan Frankhouser, as well as freshman Daniel Haimes all saw limited time. If the Falcons revert to struggling at the dot, as they did in 2021, it will put more pressure on Rose and that defense to make stops and be that neutralizer to get them possessions.
Potential Breakout Player
Wes Peene, Midfield, Sophomore
With Brenden Crouse gone, the Falcons will be looking for someone to fill that role as a shooter from the midfield. As a freshman, Peene scored 10 goals and dished out five assists as the Falcons’ fifth-leading goal-scorer and point-getter. Having found success in this offense a year ago, Peene could very well take that next step in 2023.
The Falcons bring in a a very strong freshman class, headlined by attackman Haydn Sommer out of Culver Academy (Ind.). Originally an Army West Point verbal, Sommer flipped to the Falcons in September of his senior season. A Cypress, Texas, native, Sommer showcased an ability to be a quarterback-type attackman at the high school level. He was rated as a four-star by Inside Lacrosse.