Service academy teams in volleyball tournament this weekend at Pentagon
Being part of the first of anything can be special, but being part of the first college volleyball tournament played inside the Pentagon carries a special honor.
Especially for Air Force Academy sophomore setter Hillary Keltner, an Althoff High graduate from Belleville, Ill..
"It's awesome and no one believes it when you tell them," Keltner said. "They're like 'Really, you're playing in the actual Pentagon?' We're really excited about it. It's kind of crazy, kind of chaotic, but it's totally going to be worth it."
The brainchild of Air Force coach Matt McShane and one his friends working at the Pentagon, the first All-Academy Championship Tournament is set for Friday and Saturday.
It features four service academies — Air Force, Army, Navy and The Citadel — and the University of Denver all competing inside the Arlington, Va., complex that houses the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Air Force (1-5) will play Navy at 5 p.m. Friday, The Citadel at 11 a.m. Saturday and will close out the round-robin tourney against Army at 5 p.m. Saturday.
"When I got here, I called Army and Navy and asked them if there was an all-academy tournament like what happens in football," said McShane, in his third year as head coach of the Falcons. "I found a guy who is an Air Force Academy grad and played volleyball at the academy who now works in the Pentagon."
That was McShane's friend Ben Glon, who works at the Pentagon as deputy director of finance and programming in the Navy Department for External Affairs.
"He and I started working on it a year ago and now it's going to happen in a couple days," McShane said. "He works for the Navy and they give him grief all the time because he's an Air Force guy. But he helped make this tournament happen."
This is no ordinary college volleyball tournament.
It is being held in the relatively small Pentagon Athletic Center. Because of tight security, every parent, relative or friend wanting to attend had to submit information to the government for review.
No live statistics and no live video feeds will be available. No food, celphones or cameras are allowed and there were other restrictions as well, with fans being escorted into and out of the facility.
"To have anything to occur in the Pentagon, to get in as a spectator or parents, needs lots of personal background from every spectator," McShane said. "This is way, way more complicated than a typical college volleyball tournament.
"There's no bleachers; we're bringing in chairs and a portable volleyball net system. Even up to three or four months ago, it was touch and go as to whether it was really going to happen."
But all the months of planning paid off.
"It's unreal that it's finally here," said Keltner, whose parents — Joan and Greg Keltner — will both be at the tournament. "We've been talking about it since last September when the coach met with everyone at the Pentagon and set this up."
Keltner leads the Mountain West Conference with four double-doubles in her first six matches this season. The 5-foot-11 sophomore setter averages 9.57 assists and had a career-high 46 assists in the win over Arkansas State.
She also had 14 digs against North Dakota State.
"We're playing as well as we have played since I got here and in large part it's because Hillary's doing such a great job," McShane said. "When I got the job here just over two years ago, Hillary was one of the first players that we recruited.
"I don't think she had any idea about the Air Force Academy, but she's turned out to embrace it."
The tournament has attracted the attention of some high-ranking Pentagon officials, including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. Welsh had his executive officer call McShane and invite the Air Force team to his office for a personal meeting.
"I've heard him speak before and it's going to be a real treat for the girls," McShane said.
McShane said the date for the tournament, which will be held around the same time each year, is to help commemorate the victims of the 9/11 attack and the many military members who serve and protect their country.
The Pentagon was struck by a hijacked Boeing jetliner that day with 189 people killed counting passengers and building workers.
"All of our players play volleyball, but my players are here to become officers in the Air Force and the same with Army and the Navy," said McShane, who has two future fighter pilots on his volleyball roster. "These are the people who 10 years from now are going to keep me safe in my bed at night.
"We think that having this tournament in the Pentagon is for our players to be able to compete against each other, but also to become friends. It's a pretty special thing I think to have it in the Pentagon."
Keltner said realizing what the military does on an everyday basis helps put something like a volleyball tournament into perspective.
"While we're still playing volleyball and we're passionate about it, that's still going to be in our heads," she said. "I think we're all going to keep that in mind when we're playing each other."