Before becoming a cadet at Air Force, Alex Schilling had a stint with the Tier II Austin Bruins after starting in goal for Wayzata High School, near Minneapolis, Minn. Photo by Mark Hvidsten, SportsEngine
Alex Schilling doesn’t need to look far to reaffirm his decision that he has found the right place.
The Rocky Mountains encroach the western edge of Air Force Academy’s campus, offering snippets of unworldly recreation opportunities to someone already living the dream.
The setting is just one of many things now about the program, the service, and the community that fit Schilling through and through.
Four seasons removed from Wayzata High School in Minnesota, including two winters climbing the ladder with the Tier II Austin (Minnesota) Bruins of the North American Hockey League, Schilling navigates campus with the best of them. After a full day of classes, and formations or other obligations, he arrives at Cadet Ice Arena in the late afternoon, finally able to focus on the reason that brought him there in the first place: hockey.
Schilling, fueled by his work ethic and drive, is steadily asserting himself as he enters his sophomore season locked in a three-way fight to become the Falcons' next starting goalie.
“It’s open season right now,” he said. “And we are all thriving on the competition.”
The checklist looks like this: Prospects need to be exceptional hockey players with strong academic aptitude; they must demonstrate ways of being an outstanding citizen, as well as someone willing to accept the military component; it requires a five-year post-graduate service commitment; and of course, American citizenship.
“These (factors) dictate who we can recruit,” Serratore said. “And Alex checks all the boxes.”
Before Air Force contacted him following his first year in Austin, Schilling’s knowledge of the service academy was limited to knowing one of his high school teammates was committed to the Falcons. There wasn’t much else to go on.
But that changed quickly, and it wasn’t long before Schilling was sold on the idea.
“I learned pretty quickly that it’s a fantastic school for hockey, and what you can do in general with a degree from here is outstanding. It’s a complete package,” he said.
He added: “Plus, nobody in my family had a military background, and I really wanted to challenge myself like that. Not just about hockey, and school, but trying something different like what the military offers.”
"We’ve got two goalies that are ahead of the pack right now, and (Schilling is) one of those guys. There is no question that he is a contender for our starting spot, and really, we need him to be a contender.”
Air Force coach
When he arrived at the academy last year, basic cadet training shocked Schilling. Coming out of junior hockey without having gone to school for two years meant he needed to sharpen his skills.
Getting Schilling stronger was a top priority for the Air Force coaching staff. Last year, buried down the depth chart behind a senior starter, he worked hard with the strength and conditioning staff, then carried the training into the spring and summer. It’s led him to the opportunity he is in now, and it has his Air Force coaches excited about where Schilling might lead them.
Schilling wakes at 6:20 a.m. to dress for morning formation with his squadron before heading to breakfast. First-period classes start at 7:30 a.m. and Schilling logs three more classes until the entire student body meets for lunch around noon.
Following that, Schilling enjoys a break, where he can get extra instruction for classes, or relax and nap before heading to the arena for practice and hockey studying until dinner. That leaves him a modest amount of time in the evening to wrap completing homework assignments and try to get into bed at a decent hour before repeating the process the next day. It’s a time management practice he looks to improve on every day.
Air Force has 11 players on the roster from Minnesota, a component that Schilling said does make things a bit easier, as they tend to gravitate towards each other for solidarity as they acclimate to the challenges. And though they’ve all got high school teammates now playing big-time college hockey, none of them are getting the experience that cadet life offers.
“The unity is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else,” Schilling said. “Not just the hockey, and the school, but as a group you live together, you eat all your meals together, you are around each other all the time, sharing the same struggles. Also, with the military aspect, there is a brotherhood you probably wouldn’t find someplace else.”
Serratore praises Schilling's character and said he fits in perfectly.
“What we have are good kids who work and try hard,” Serratorre said. “It’s a bunch of Type A players who are glass half-full, more positive-than-negative type personalities who want to please you, please the fans, please their parents, please everybody. Everyone here has a positive attitude, and they want to get better.”
In his free time, Schilling said hiking the mountains is about as good as it gets. A short trek up the trail and he can turn around and see the academy campus, with all it has to offer, laid out before him. He never forgets to count his blessings.
“It’s a special place,” Schilling said. “To be a part of this tradition, to get this education and to play D-1 hockey here is totally a blessing.”