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Air Force's Josh Yabo.

Air Force Shuffles Pieces to Ignite 7-Game Winning Streak

April 19, 2024
Patrick Stevens
Guy Grindberg / Air Force Athletics

Air Force went into the season with plenty of pieces in place after coming within a victory of their first NCAA tournament trip since 2017 last year.

Fitting a couple of them in different roles has helped the Falcons (8-4, 7-0 Atlantic Sun) rattle off seven victories in a row and the opportunity to clinch the top seed in their conference tournament when Jacksonville (9-4, 6-1) visits on Saturday.

Chris Bardak primarily played long stick midfielder last season, earning all-league honors on defense. But with Air Force deep at pole and seeking some experience at short stick, Bardak made a switch that paid off immediately.

The senior has four goals and six assists (he’s fourth on the Falcons in the latter category), has caused a team-high 17 turnovers and ranks second on the roster with 37 ground balls, making him an all-around force.

Plus, there’s a leadership element that earned him a spot as one of Air Force’s three captains, and coach Bill Wilson considers him one of the hardest workers on the roster.

“He was willing to put his long stick down and play with his short stick this year and has been very solid for us in the clear and very solid if not dynamic off the ground on the faceoff wing with a short stick between the lines and in scramble situations,” Wilson said. “He’s like having a long stick middie out there with a short stick. He’s been phenomenal.”

While Bardak’s switch solidified the defense, the offense’s breakout player is Josh Yago, who split last year between attack and midfield.

Assistants Doug Murray and Will Corrigan settled on the junior as an attackman this season, and he’s piled up 19 goals and a team-high 27 assists. Yago, who is coming off career highs in assists (five) and points (eight) in Wednesday’s 20-5 rout of Mercer, is four assists shy of matching Keith Dreyer’s total in 2014 for the most in Air Force’s modern history (defined as since it joined a Division I conference in 1994).

Yago has played well in tandem with Caelan Driggs (28 goals) and Turner Ashby (20 goals, 13 assists), as well as the emerging Matt Rubino, but has also offered the Falcons a dynamic option.

“He is different from everyone on the field, and when you watch him, you can see that,” Wilson said. “Whether he’s riding, whether he’s going for ground balls, whether he’s just running offense on-ball or off ball. … He’s really taken to the coaching, but also wanting the ball and wanting to play that role. JY is that guy. He wants to be that player, but he’s so unselfish and he understands the bigger picture when he’s playing offense.”

Air Force has stitched together its longest winning streak since 2016 and the second longest of its modern era. It has given up only 27 goals in its last five outings, and Wilson believes the Falcons have progressed in figuring out who they are as a team, a process that continues even this deep in the season.

“That’s the best part of the experience for me,” Wilson said. “I feel like our guys just continue to get better every day and progress every day in practice and learn to trust each other and learn to put in the time needed. Our guys have a lot of balls in the air at the Air Force Academy, and to keep them all in the air all the time is a challenge. Our guys do a great job at that.”