On the heels of their sixth straight NCAA Championships qualification, the Mountaineers (12-2, 5-1 GARC) seek to continue their reign as the conference's top team tomorrow, as they take to the line for the smallbore competition at 8:30 a.m. ET; the individual smallbore finals are set for 6:30 p.m. The team air rifle relay opens at 9 a.m. on Sunday, with the individual finals following at 1:30 p.m.
"We need to go down and have a really good performance this weekend," says two-time GARC Coach of the Year Jon Hammond. "We will be shooting against some teams that are having a really good season. I think we're focused on shooting our best and getting some good prep for the NCAA Championships. We want to continue to improve, and if that results in a conference championship, that's great."
The squad's defense of its title follows its jump in the College Rifle Coaches Association (CRCA) Poll, as the Mountaineers moved up one spot to No. 2.
WVU owns five conference titles and has held a tight grip on the conference tournament over the last two seasons, not only winning the team titles but also sweeping the individual championships, as 2011 GARC Senior and Shooter of the Year Nicco Campriani won the last two air rifle, smallbore and combined score titles. The Mountaineers enter the championships on a three-match win streak, having defeated conference foe NC State, 4647-4577, on Feb. 5, and the VMI men (4678-4413) and women (4678-4326) on Feb. 18 in an NCAA qualifying match.
Prior to its recent victories, WVU dropped its lone conference match of the season, a 4680-4650 decision, to No. 3 Kentucky, down one spot in the CRCA Poll, on Feb. 3. Expected to push the Mountaineers for the title, the Wildcats (11-1, 6-0 GARC), the defending national champions, also trumped WVU in air rifle (2365-2356) and smallbore (2315-2294).
"I think we match up pretty well against anyone right now," Hammond says. "Kentucky is going to be tough, but so will Ole Miss and Army. We have the shooters capable of performing well, and we match up against all of those squads. We just have to focus on ourselves and hope everyone shoots his or her best."
Through 13 matches, WVU is averaging an aggregate score of 4673.23. The team also boasts air rifle and smallbore season averages of 2355.46 and 2317.77, respectively. Junior All-American Petra Zublasing paces the team with an 1183.7 season average. The Appiano, Italy, native also owns the team's top discipline season averages with a 596.3 air rifle mark and a 587.5 smallbore mark. Zublasing set personal bests in both guns this season, shooting a school-record 600 air rifle on Oct. 22 and 593 smallbore on Oct. 30. Zublasing finished second overall at last year's championships with an aggregate total of 1175. She also placed second in air rifle (594 relay, 103.6 finals) and fourth in smallbore (581 relay, 99 finals).
Seniors Michael Kulbacki and Justin Pentz join Zublasing as the only Mountaineers to have shot at a previous GARC Championships.
"It's good that we have three shooters with experience, but then again, we only have three," explains Hammond. "Those three know the format and will be comfortable. The rest of the team will use this weekend as a learning experience. If they all approach the championships the right way, they will realize that it's just another match and they still have to shoot good shots."
Freshmen Taylor Ciotola and Meelis Kiisk have shot well as of late. Ciotola, a Pasadena, Md., native, recorded a personal best 1170 in last week's qualifier and shot a personal-best 590 air rifle on Feb. 3. Kiisk, a native of Paide, Estonia, has shot a personal-best 592 air rifle twice this season and netted a season-high 1164 aggregate score against the Wildcats.
No. 4 Army, Nebraska and Memphis, along with the Wildcats, the Wolfpack and the Rebels, comprise this season's championships field. Fans can find a link for live scores at www.MSNsportsNET.com.