`Off the Court' with the Falcons at West Point

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    Sept. 5, 2007

    The Air Force volleyball team opened the 2007 season with a four-day road trip to West Point. For this week's installment of "Off the Court with the Falcons", Air Force's assistant media relations director chronicled the trip away from the matches. While the match recaps explain the figurative Xs and Os, this journal goes beyond the court.

    AIR FORCE'S TRIP TO NEW YORK PHOTO GALLERY

    Thursday, August 30

    While much of Colorado was still asleep, the Air Force volleyball team was awake and ready to go on our first road trip of the season. Although the sun wasn't yet thinking about making an appearance, an Academy bus picked up the 17 travel players and our officer representative from the Hill before heading to the Cadet Field House to pick up some of the staff.

    Even at 5:30 a.m., the athletic campus was a busy place. Not only were we leaving for Army, but the men's soccer team had the same departure time for their trip to Navy. Once we loaded our luggage on the bus, we returned to Mitchell Hall to pick up our two managers, who were waiting with our breakfast.

    The word `breakfast' might be a stretch, because save for an extra box of Uncrustables (an early morning volleyball must-have), the pre-packaged meals contained sandwiches, chips and other lunch-type surprises.

    We finally departed the Academy and headed to the Colorado Springs Jet Center, where we met up with the final members of our traveling party, head coach Penny Lucas-White, assistant coach Kyle Robinson and athletic trainer DeAnne Zamora.

     

     

    The nice thing about flying on a military aircraft is the "curbside" service. The bus drove onto the flightline and deposited us just feet from the stairs of our KC-135. A quick inspection showed that we would have "web" seats - the seats are basically cots that fold down from the side of the aircraft with netting to provide support for your back. Three large crates stored our luggage in the middle of the aircraft.

    After receiving our earplugs, we got a quick briefing from our crew on where the oxygen bags was located ("should we encounter a decrease in cabin pressure") and the various other things we would actually need to know. We were all able to find the clearly-marked exit doors on our own thanks to numerous big red signs posted along the wall.

    The flight crew had a table and four airline-type seats bolted to the floor near the front of the plane, which I think is their primary seat assignments while flying routes without human cargo. Once the crew gave the okay that those seats were available for our use, Coach White, Coach V and Dee snapped up three of the seats. When the final crew member said he would sit in the back with his cohorts, I joined the staff at the big table, much to the joy of Katie Batchelder, who used my vacated seat as extra leg room for her make-shift bed.

    Although the team had started to doze off during all of the pre-flight activities, they had to sit up for take-off. Because of our new seat locations, Dee and I faced backward during take-off, which is a little different. Since I have now experienced take-off facing forward, backward and sideways (thanks to a trip with the track and field team) I think I am good until they develop something new.

    Thanks to our flight crew (which included a 1991 Academy grad), Nichole Stillwell and Jeena Kinney were able sit in the cockpit during take-off. Soon after we were in the air, the team spread back out on their cots and fell asleep. This writer used the table as a rather hard pillow and quickly fell asleep (some of this is due to a lack of sleep on my part by attending a concert in Denver the night before and not getting home until 1230 ... and not being packed).

    Heat and humidity welcomed us to New York like a slap in the face, as we landed at the Atlantic Aviation Center. We loaded up the bus and met our driver, Ricky. After making a quick stop at Boston Market for lunch, we headed to our hotel which is located in the town of Fishkill. It's actually a very cute, quaint town - despite its less than appetizing name.

    Not all of the rooms were ready when we got to the hotel, so we dumped all of our belongings into two rooms that were available and the team got ready for practice. We got back on the bus and headed toward New York City.

    We ended up hitting the outskirts of the city during rush hour. It can only be described as magnifying the worst rush hour that you have ever seen. With the picturesque skyline of NYC right across the river, we seemed to play cat and mouse with the bus in the next lane as we all vied to capture the image. While in the tunnel, topics amongst the players ranged from food to Disney movies to boy bands to other movies and back to food.

    The team made a special stop at Ground Zero. Staring at the vast amount of space that once housed such massive structures, it served as a reminder that these players signed on for so much more than just volleyball. The team did manage to become a minor `tourist attraction', as numerous other visitors wanted a photo of (or with) the Air Force volleyball team.

    Our grand plan of practicing at Hunter College on Park Avenue earned a slight detour when driving through New York City at 5:30 p.m., proved to be a VERY long endeavor. We finally decided to forgo practice and enjoy a "night on the town."

    The bus pulled over on a side street in front of a 24-hour car wash, as the staff reworked our plans. During this time, Jocelyn Booker moved to the front of the bus to take a 10-minute quiz that had to be completed today.

    Once Jocelyn was done with her quiz, we split up. (Okay, so I don't know if it's technically splitting up when 21 of the 25 members stay together in a group.) The team got off the bus with Coach Kyle and our O.R., while Coach White, Coach V, Dee and I remained on the bus and headed toward Broadway.

    Coaches White and V, along with Dee, had tickets to see "The Color Purple", while I was meeting up with one of my oldest friends who had driven in from Connecticut with her husband. Everyone else traveled by foot through SoHo and various other areas before catching the subway to Times Square for dinner and sightseeing. The endeavor was "slightly" taxing on Ellen Bina, who was in the midst of Day 2 on crutches.

    We all regrouped outside The Broadway Theater at 10:30 p.m., following the coaches' show (which received rave reviews from all three of its Air Force viewers!). Since the intense traffic that had hampered our arrival was all but gone, the trip back to Fishkill took half the time.

    After handing out room assignments and claiming our luggage from the two rooms that had become storage lockers, everyone was finally able to fall asleep in someplace other than a plane or bus.

    Friday, August 31

    It's the first of two game days during our trip to New York. Although it might seem like the more relaxed of the two, seeing as how we only have one match in one location, the opponent is service academy rival Army.

    We met downstairs for breakfast, our travel party taking up much of the dining room at the Courtyard Marriott. At 8:30, we loaded up the bus and headed to West Point for a one-hour serve/pass session. It took a little longer than planned as we picked the entrance to the post that didn't allow busses.

    We finally found the correct entrance and once we were past the security checkpoint, we wound our way back through the post toward Gillis Field House. This route, although longer, took us through the buildings that are synonymous with the U.S. Military Academy.

    Since the volleyball court is located in the midfield of the Black Knights' indoor track, the girls took a longer run around the track instead of simply warming up by running around the court several times.

    After a good practice, we reloaded the bus and headed back to the hotel. After dropping the majority of the team off at the hotel for study time, Coach White, Dee and I had Ricky (the bus driver) take us to the local Sam's Club to stock up on fruit, water, Gatorade and all the makings for peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.

    Upon returning to the hotel, several of the freshmen came down to carry in the purchases, while secretly counting down the days until they are no longer the team's go-to gophers. With a snack to tide them over until pre-game, the players and managers wrapped up their study session and headed back to their rooms for some downtime to mentally get ready for tonight's match. For now, no more chemistry, calculus and physics ... now it is all serving, setting and attacking.

    About an hour later we got back on the bus and headed to our pre-game meal, which was at this little Italian restaurant in downtown Fishkill. And by little, I mean we closed the place down. With the exception of one family that had already been there when we arrived, every table was filled with someone wearing blue and silver. Delicious pasta was consumed, as was bread - much to the delight of the girls.

    Taking the correct security gate this time, we arrived at West Point ready to play. With it being a long holiday weekend, the crowd wasn't quite as full of opposing cadets as it might have been, but the Army fans showed their spirit. Except for one, who gave the Falcons a quick cheer since his sister is Kelly Spencer - a freshman on our squad.

    An hour and a half later, the match was over. It was not the outcome that the Falcons had anticipated, so a somber group made its way out of Gillis Field House. The Spencer family - who had driven up from Georgia to see both Kelly and her older brother - created a tailgate feast for the Falcons - complete with pulled pork sandwiches and to-die-for brownies.

    Finally after saying our thank-yous and goodbyes to the Spencer's and all of the families that had made the trek to New York, the Falcons got back on the bus and returned to the hotel. The team put the Army match out of their minds, as two more matches loomed on the horizon.

    Saturday, September 1

    Saturday began just like Friday, as the team converged on the small dining room of the Courtyard Marriott. It was slightly earlier and we brought everything with us that we would need for our first match. Following breakfast, we immediately loaded the bus and headed back to West Point; now professionals at entering the base.

    Once at the field house, the team went through taping and treatment, before a light serve and pass session. With two and a half hours to kill before the match, our tutor Kim Swetz and I took our own self-guided tour of West Point. Luckily, at that time of the morning, the heat and humidity had not yet set in, since Army is in a very hilly location. Adding to our luck was the fact that the post was nearly deserted due to the long weekend ... not that we stood out or anything in our Air Force gear!

    Kim and I returned to Gillis Field House just in time for the national anthem. Following the exciting ace-filled match (15 in all and just one shy of our Academy record!), we got back on the bus once again and headed toward Fishkill for a post-game snack.

    Today was slightly more hectic than yesterday, since not only were we playing two matches, but they were in two different cities. While we opened the day at West Point, we concluded the tournament in Poughkeepsie.

    Unfortunately, the Panera Bread that had caught our attention on the way to West Point had also gotten the attention of Rutgers' volleyball team, who was heading toward Army for their evening match. Needless to say, the place was packed with one volleyball team and a whole lot of regular patrons.

    So, we remained on the bus and headed toward an Olive Garden that had been recommended by the hotel. Plans were changed once again, as we were informed that it would be almost an hour to seat us (and not even as one big group). Finally, Plan C was formed and we found a small sandwich shop that wasn't overly busy.

    With our entire schedule being thrown off kilter due to the numerous changes to our itinerary, our downtime was dwindling. Everyone ordered one sandwich for the moment and then added another to a list for later. As soon as we all had our current order, the staff (which was remarkably fast considering the numerous sandwiches they were forced to make) started in on the second order. This second group of sandwiches would be our post-match meal.

    Finally, we returned to the bus - the freshmen carrying the boxes that contained our dinner. Our "downtime" at the hotel turned into a quick run-in-grab-what-you-need-and-get-back. I basically had just enough time to get online in the business center and update the score of the Quinnipiac match.

    Once we got to Poughkeepsie's Marist College, the team got ready for serve and pass. While the last few players were going through pre-game treatments with Dee, the rest of the team met on the court and took a team nap - sleeping as though they were on the best mattresses out there instead of a hard gym floor.

    Finally, a quick practice ensued and it was game time. I was asked by Marist's SID to type stats as they were short-handed due to other commitments. Now, I have never typed a volleyball game in my life, but I've been around the sport long enough that I said sure ... and then we go five games!! Talk about a crash course in volleyball stats ... although Coach V said afterward that they were just making sure I got practice.

    With two exciting victories under our belts, Coach White said the team could stop at a Cold Stone Creamery for desert. Now, no one was actually sure if there even was one on the route from Poughkeepsie to Fishkill, but to the delight of the players and their eagle eyes, one was found.

    With the team happy and full of victory sweets, we returned to the hotel where it was time to relax and pack up for the trip back to Colorado Springs.

    Sunday, September 2

    Another early morning greeted us, as the team prepared to depart Fishkill. The staff at the Courtyard Marriott was nice enough to get the hot portion of their breakfast buffet ready earlier than normal for us, as we needed to be on the bus by 6:30 a.m.

    Once all of our gear was loaded on the bus, we traveled back to the Atlantic Aviation Center. Our KC-135 was ready and waiting, but we were on the outside looking in - as we had to wait for TSA to make sure that everyone on the bus belonged on the bus.

    As soon as we got the okay, the bus rolled out onto the flightline and we loaded our luggage back into the three crates. Manager Jessica Guy and I were able to sit in the cockpit during takeoff, due to most of the team wanting to take advantage of some much-needed sleep time.

    Sitting up there was awesome!! Jessica sat in the jump seat between the two pilots, while I was across from the boom operator. We were each given a pair of headsets, so we not only could hear and talk to the crew, but we could also hear the various control tower operators from the centers that we flew over.

    Somewhere over Goodland, Kan., Jessica and I switched places with Dee and Kyle, who had been promised the cockpit seating for landing. Landing was so smooth, that Coach White and I both looked at one another, with matching `did we just land?' expressions. As we unloaded our bags, we helped out the crew by accidentally unloading their bags as well.

    Coach White, Kyle and Dee got in their own cars, while the rest of us met up with our Academy bus driver - who was happy to see us, as his alternative was taking parents on tours of Jacks Valley back at the Academy.

    Following the theme of any volleyball road trip, we loaded the bus and discussed food options. It might have been a day late, but we finally took the team to Panera Bread. We rolled into the Academy about 10:30, where a few sets of parents were waiting to enjoy the remainder of Parents' Weekend with their daughters.

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