BEHIND THE PLATE: Service academy makes first trip to Reno |

BEHIND THE PLATE: Service academy makes first trip to Reno

The Wolf Pack football season keeps making history.

For the first time in school history, Nevada will host Air Force, one of five service academies, on Saturday at Mackay Stadium. Along with Air Force, only two of the remaining academies play at the Division I level while two smaller programs call the Division III home.

And while this will be the first time Air Force has visited Reno for football, it’s also the first time that a service academy will make the trip. Army and Navy, which compete independently in football, have not visited Northern Nevada yet as they try to target cities near adequate military bases. The Coast Guard and Merchant Marine academies are the only institutions not playing at the NCAA’s highest division.

The academies have a long line of tradition and history in athletics, from winning national championships in football to seeing one of the best college basketball coaches in history continue leading the Duke Blue Devils. And you can’t forget about the annual Navy-Army game in December. With the success on the field, though, these contests are also an opportunity for the public to witness the next wave of America’s greatest soldiers.

These cadets aren’t just your average college student, either. Facing the same stiff requirements as the prestigious Ivy League schools like Yale and Harvard, recruits get the opportunity to have one of the best educations possible as well as learning to serve the country and graduating from the academy as an officer.

Fallon has seen its share of students push themselves into getting accepted into one of the academies with the most recent being Brogan O’Toole, who graduated from Air Force last year.

Like O’Toole, my brother and I were drawn to the academies before we reached high school.

The excitement and opportunity were more than enough to draw us into learning more about Army and Navy, in particular. Our father served as the region’s admission representative to West Point and successfully sent several Northern Nevadans to the military academy. Annual service academy fairs occurred in September when all five academies, as well as ROTC and the National Guard would try to lure high school students into taking a chance.

We got our first glimpse of the academy life when the Ranson boys attended a graduation at West Point 15 years ago. The experience was unforgettable as hundreds of soon-to-be officers marched into Michie Stadium, which sits beautifully along the Hudson River 50 miles north of New York City. West Point felt like a large medieval castle surrounded by numerous trees, making the feeling more intimate and inspiring.

This where the greatest Army soldiers have come to study and lead this country since its founding in 1802.

The Naval Academy in Maryland was just as impressive.

Our father enrolled David, Stephanie and I into a one-week sports camp at the academy, which not only supplied us with wealthy information about our sport but also gave us a glimpse about the academy life. My brother participated in the wrestling game while my sister and I took up tennis. The experience continued to be overwhelming and exciting, which included a funny story with the head coach of the tennis program.

During my freshman year of playing tennis, I wasn’t good as I struggled with the transition from baseball. Home runs were common, even on the tennis court.

But sporting a black Army hat, my luck started to turn for the good toward the end of the fall season. The next season saw improvement as I went from one win to finishing with an even record. I credited the success to the hat and then a white Army visor with the Black Knight logo.

When we showed up for the Navy tennis camp during the summer before my junior year, my father and I politely asked the Navy coach if it would be all right wearing the Army hat because of its good luck. The coach, who looked identical to William H. Macy, initially thought we were joking and then got serious and quietly hinted at trading the hat in for a Navy visor. After the first day, we found out that Army defeated Navy in the Patriot League Championships that season.

The service academy always remained an option for me throughout high school until I was accepted into the Coast Guard’s one-week summer introductory program before my senior year. My test scores were not high enough for Army, Navy and Air Force, but Coast Guard and the Merchant Marines were within my grasp.

I played a round with the Coast Guard tennis team before the academy’s program, but I realized afterward that this life wasn’t for me. I wanted to be on the ground and follow my family’s path through the Army.

When the academy fell through, ROTC was the next avenue to explore as I visited Doane College, a small liberal arts college about an hour away from Lincoln, Neb. I was invited to play tennis at Doane if I enrolled at the school but would have to commute to Lincoln to participate in the University of Nebraska’s ROTC program.

I ended up finishing my high school career deciding to ultimately get my degree at the University of Nevada, Reno. During my time at Nevada, though, I caught myself thinking about how my life would have ended up if I decided to go through with the Coast Guard Academy or if I moved to the Midwest to play tennis and complete the ROTC program.

Although fulfilling one of these career paths would have created more opportunity to serve the country and travel the world, I couldn’t be happier with my life today with my two beautiful daughters and an amazing wife.

The service academies and even ROTC continue to generate thousands of intelligent, hard-working and dedicated soldiers who strive every day to protect our freedom.

With Air Force being the first academy to visit Reno and compete against the Wolf Pack on the gridiron, it reminds us again about the appreciation these young men deserve both on the field and in the cockpit.

Thomas Ranson can be contacted at