Academy Airmen help carry Air Force basketball teams to victory

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
The all-Air Force men's and women's teams took different paths to victory in the Armed Forces Basketball Tournament at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., April 17.

The men's team, which had several former Air Force Falcons on its roster, destroyed its competition, sweeping its way to an unbeaten record and its sixth-straight gold medal. The women's team, in contrast, clawed its way back to the top after facing elimination in the second round of the playoffs.

Both teams had two things in common: Air Force Academy Airmen fighting for their service's victory, and gold medals at tournament's end.


The women's team won their first round-robin match against the all-Marine Corps team, 65-58, April 11. But a string of painful defeats followed: 53-47 to Navy and 66-62 to Army in the round-robin games, followed by a 44-36 loss to Army in the first round of the playoff.

"There was no expectation we would win," said Tech. Sgt. Melissa Fletcher, a mental health NCO assigned to the Academy's Peak Performance Center.

Instead of giving up, Sergeant Fletcher said, the team persevered.

"We all supported one another," she said. "There was no drama. That was the cool part about the team: there were no individualists. We all contributed."

Sergeant Fletcher's own background illustrates the team's spirit: the single mother of four tried out for the all-Air Force women's team in 1998, 2005 and 2006, but she was turned down each time. She finally made the cut for the all-Air Force Europe women's team in 2007 while stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy. She prepared for this tournament by getting up at 5 a.m. to run 5 miles before work, then lifted weights in Fairchild Hall's fitness center annex in the early evening. And she played through to the first final game even while nursing the arch of her left foot, which was on the verge of collapse.

"If you're adamant about doing what you love to do, don't let anything stop you from doing it," she said. "How bad do you want it?"

The women's team decided they wanted the gold enough to come back from the bottom of the pile. They defeated Navy 55-51 in the second round and beat the Marine Corps 64-48 in the third round, to advance to the championship.

However, because they had been in the losers' bracket, the Air Force women would have to defeat Army twice to take home the gold. They did exactly that, defeating Army 67-51 in the first championship game and outlasting Army 71-65 in the tiebreaker.

"Of all the teams I've played on, the two best were the all-Air Force Europe team and this team," Sergeant Fletcher said. "Our coach, Master Sgt. (Darryl) Carpenter, was a very, very good coach. And (Senior Airman) Tiffany Guthrie was a phenomenal player. I bow down to her -- she was awesome." Sergeant Fletcher also had kind words for her leaders and co-workers at the 10th Medical Group and the Commandant of Cadets staff, who released her from duty at the Academy to play in the tournament, and for Bradley Isom, who helped take care of her daughters while she was out-of-state.


Three Academy Airmen -- Captains Tyron Wright and Thomas Bellairs and 2nd Lt. Grant Parker -- are among the five former Air Force Falcons men's basketball players who were named to the team by the Air Force Services Agency March 4.

Captain Bellairs, now a Falcons assistant coach, picked up basketball in middle school as an "in-between" sport: something to keep him active after football season ended and before baseball started. The Colorado Springs native played basketball exclusively once he started high school, and Air Force recruited him on a basketball scholarship his senior year.

"I didn't know anything about the service academies before that," he said. "It was just a unique opportunity that presented itself."

Captain Wright, an academic adviser with the Academy's Registrar Services office and a native of Columbia, S.C., coached the team this year after playing on the team in years past.

"We had a lot of good players," said Wright, a native of Columbia, S.C. "Going undefeated was a credit to them and to the goal they set. They went out and executed every day."

Captain Wright, who coaches the Academy Preparatory School's Huskies basketball team, described leading the all-Air Force team to its sixth-consecutive gold medal as a pleasure.

"I actually played on the team that won the first (gold medal)," he said. "To be on the coaching end is a new rewarding experience. I just appreciate the opportunity that the Air Force gave me."

Captain Wright will coach the all-Armed Forces team at the Council of International Military Sports tournament in Rio De Janiero July 12-25.