The annual Army-Navy football game may be the grandest military athletic contest in terms of history, but that doesn’t mean the others are any less compelling, charged or inspiring. Which leads me to this weekend’s College MatchDay, at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Fla.
On one side of the nets will be Army; on the other side Air Force. High above the men’s and women’s teams, which will competing side-by-side at the Campus’ 12-court Collegiate Center, will be two Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, soaring through the air in the first flyover for a college tennis match.
Neither team thought the spectacle would be possible, given the Campus’ proximity to Orlando International Airport. But according to Brian Ormiston, who is involved with the planning of College MatchDay, “Air Force men’s coach Dan Oosterhous started the conversations on his end early last year and ultimately got all of the documents and approvals ready to go. In January, we found out the person in charge of ground control is a former Air Force men’s tennis manager.”
It’s as if this match was destined to be special. But the service academies didn’t stop there. Second Lieutenant Jocelle Rudico, in space operations at nearby Eglin Air Force Base, will sing the national anthem. A free tennis clinic will be held for military veterans or active service members. There’s even a commemorative bobblehead being given to the first 400 fans in attendance.
It will be an experience to behold in person, for sure, and on television as well. The Army-Air Force matches will be shown live on Tennis Channel Plus on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, with a tape-delayed premiere airing on Tennis Channel on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
Here’s what some of the coaches and players had to say about the historic—and grand—College MatchDay between the two programs:
Daniel Oosterhous, Air Force men’s coach:
We have a great relationship with the Army coaching staff and each year we try to find a compelling venue to play our annual rivalry match. Last year, we played at Stanford, next year we play at USC. We’ve all seen how College MatchDay has quickly grown into the best match environment in college tennis, and it came to us that we had a great product to pitch to the USTA. Air Force vs Army, men’s and women’s teams, simultaneous dual match, on President’s Day weekend, with aircraft flyovers. It’s been a two-year process to get here and we are ready to play!
Paul Peck, Army women’s coach:
I am happy for our players to get recognized for their willingness to serve their country and for them to showcase their tennis skills in front of a large crowd and on Tennis Channel. One would be surprised how many people in our country know very little about the National Service Academies and the opportunities they can offer to a prospective student.
TJ Fumagalli, Air Force
As a junior, I’ve always wanted to match up head-to-head against Army, and until this weekend I’ve never gotten the chance. To me, this match-up is anytime, anywhere. My teammates just want to compete. It was honestly just the ‘cherry on top’ to have gotten this opportunity from the USTA. When I heard we were going up against them this year, I nearly came out of my shoes, and when I heard about College MatchDay, I thought I was slightly dreaming.
Kim Gidley, Air Force women’s coach
No one on our team has gotten to compete against Army. So when I heard the men were going to play in Orlando, and the USTA National Campus said we could possibly combine and play at the same time? I immediately said we were ‘all-in’, just tell us when.
The big stage for our cadet/athletes will not be what they do with their tennis careers, but what they do in their careers by protecting and defending this nation from enemies that are foreign and domestic. To have an opportunity to compete on stage with their passion in an incredible venue is a memory these cadets will carry for a lifetime. As a coach, it gives me joy knowing that I could play a small part in helping to give them this memory. When these cadets are deployed and away from their loved ones on holidays and in harm’s way, this experience and their sisterhood will be a memory to help them get through those tough times and challenges.
I equate this match and the venue to an event like the Super Bowl. As a coach, my challenge is to have our cadets prepared and focused for battle, yet I want them to enjoy being here and all this event has to offer. In some respects, it's what we talk about each day, and that is how to bring ‘greatness’ to the court and ‘love the battle’.
Meredith Laskey, Air Force senior
I’m incredibly excited for our match against Army. Academy rivalries are one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, and I love that our team gets to be a part of it. I’m thankful for my team that I get to play alongside one last season. It definitely raises the stakes and makes us all want to play our best. Beat Army!
Anant Mundra, Army junior
We have beaten them the last four years, but our teams are very different now, with different players. They are going to be really hungry for the win, just as we are, but competing against a rival service academy definitely brings out the best tennis on both sides.
Tadhg Collins, Air Force senior
Anytime service academies play the match is important, regardless of how either team is playing or what conference they are in. It’s impossible really to view matches like these as just another opponent. Being a senior on the team there is a huge incentive to play well, and to finish my career off defeating a rival academy would make my last season that much more memorable. It’s also special in a way because you’re reminded that there’s other college tennis players out there going through the same struggles as you are. And how they will also be serving by your side down the road.
Paul Hendrix, Air Force sophomore
Army is our toughest matchup each year because they bring the same understanding of honor and fight to the court just as we do, but with a slightly different identity. It’s a special day each year when we meet to play, and this year is no different. We are still looking to play our hardest and hopefully take down our biggest rival. Some of our extra incentive includes being at one of the world’s top tennis facilities where we look to play our best tennis, and hopefully give the fans an exciting show.
Melanie Allen, Army senior
Playing another service academy is such a privilege. Both teams are fighting hard on this tennis court, but that is just part of their college journey. Yeah, we want to beat them, but at the end of the day everyone on the court will be serving our nation in a few short years. That’s what matters most; beating Air Force is just a bonus.
Genevieve McCormick, Army senior
I am most looking forward to the atmosphere. After almost four years of college tennis, the most exciting venue I played at had about 300-plus spectators—when we beat Navy at home last spring. The USTA National Campus has sold well over 1,000 tickets to this match-up. My adrenaline will be pumping for sure; the nerves of competition—especially in front of a crowd—are my favorite feeling. I can't wait.”
If we win, the Corps will be able to close their door during morning inspection and have the option to sleep. We don't get much, so helping my classmates get an extra hour or two of sleep is the only incentive needed to win.