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Notre Dame's Matt Mooney dribbles away from Carmel's Brandon Motzel.

Notre Dame senior Matt Mooney said he never thought the military would be part of his future.

Then, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound guard caught the eye of Air Force Academy associate head coach Steve Snell at an AAU tournament in Milwaukee this past summer. Falcons coaches watched Mooney again at a tournament in Orlando a few weeks later, and they offered him a scholarship.

Mooney visited the Colorado Springs campus in September and signed a National Letter of Intent in November to play for head coach Dave Pilipovich.

With a number of Division II offers on the table and some interest from low-major Division I schools, Air Force represented Mooney’s highest-profile scholarship opportunity ahead of the early signing period.

Mooney, a combo guard who averaged a team-high 10 points per game as a junior, has long fantasized about playing college basketball. The Falcons compete in the Mountain West Conference, which currently features tradition-rich programs like UNLV and New Mexico.

“It’s big-time,” Mooney said. “The coaching staff is awesome; they know basketball. I like the players. Air Force (was) 5-0 (to start this season).

“You play against future NBA players (in the Mountain West) and in front of 10,000 to 15,000 in many arenas, usually in a great environment.”

Off the court, of course, the Air Force Academy is unlike most universities. Cadets are required to wear formal uniforms, must take part in military activities and are subjected to a rigorous academic curriculum, all designed to prepare them for a military career. There is a mandatory five-year military service commitment upon graduation, though studying for a master’s degree does count toward that commitment.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Mooney, who said he believes his chances of ever seeing military combat are slim. “I will get paid right out of college, and maybe get my master’s for free. I will develop as a person.”

Mooney, a straight-A student, has not decided what he will study, though he is interested in engineering.

The Air Force experience will be demanding, but Mooney already has made sacrifices to achieve his basketball dreams.

A resident of Wauconda, located 25 miles northwest of Notre Dame, Mooney seemed destined to attend Carmel Catholic in Mundelein, just 10 minutes from his house. His brother Daniel, who is two years older, went to the school.

However, the summer before high school, Mooney attended a few open gyms at Notre Dame, got to know the players and coach Tom Les and decided the Niles school gave him the best opportunity to reach his athletic goals.

But, unlike Carmel, the school is not co-ed. Plus, getting to school before he had a driver’s license required a lengthy journey that included: getting a ride to the Barrington train station, taking Metra’s Union Pacific-Northwest Line to Des Plaines and then hopping on the No. 250 Pace Bus for several miles down Dempster Street.

“He felt the basketball program at Notre Dame was a good fit for him and made that decision (to attend ND),” Les said. “Coming from Wauconda, he travels a long way. That was a huge commitment for him. It was a huge commitment on the part of his family, as far as traveling to our games. The majority of our road games are even further south. They are doing a lot of traveling to and from for basketball.”

Mooney admitted he sometimes questioned his choice of high schools while waiting in the cold for the train or bus. But those thoughts have long since left his mind.

“My friends went to Carmel and a lot of people wondered why I would go (to Notre Dame),” he said. “I think they now know why I went. It has paid off.”

Last season, Mooney was a key component on a Notre Dame team that went 20-9 before losing narrowly to Evanston in the regional final. With Mooney, talented junior guard/forward Duante Stephens and South Elgin transfer Jake Maestranzi, a senior point guard, the Dons won’t be sneaking up on many teams this winter.

“It’s fun playing with (Mooney),” Stephens said. “He can handle the ball, can spot up and shoot or shoot off the dribble. He’s a good passer and a great competitor. (Commuting from up north shows) he really cares about basketball, about this school and this team. I respect him for that.”

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