WVU rifle embracing pressure heading to NCAAs

There's a certain amount of pressure that comes with being one of the elite programs in the country, no matter what the sport is.

And as the No. 1 West Virginia rifle team prepares to head to the NCAA championships in March, it can already start to sense a little bit of that pressure building as the Mountaineers realize they will have a target on their back as they look to three-peat.

“Everybody here wants to win the third title and everybody else goes to the championships wanting to win one for themselves,” said senior Maren Prediger. “We’re one of the eight teams there, so we just have to see what happens.”

Last year West Virginia took a team full of underclassmen that didn't have much experience on the big stage to the national championships and put up great performances en route to winning its third national championship in the last six years and its second in a row. Now that group has matured, gotten better and will enter the tournament knowing what it needs to do in order to be successful and make another run at winning it all after separating itself from the pack as, once again, one of the premier programs in college rifle.

"Every match you shoot in has different things that help you move forward. Last year at the championships, after we won, we almost immediately started looking to this season," said junior Garrett Spurgeon. "You shoot all year and you look forward to getting to this point and you take all the lessons along the way that help you get ready and now we're here and we're ready to, hopefully, have another good showing."

There's a unique pressure that comes with rifle on this stage than most other college sports. In football or basketball or just about every other sport, there's a way that you can control the outcome of how well your opponent does by playing defense and making sure they don't have the chances to score as much as they might need to in order to win. But with rifle, you don't have that type of control over the final outcome - all you can do is shoot your scores and hope you do a good enough job that the other teams can't catch you.

It's an odd type of pressure that almost makes it unbearable to watch at times.

"It is different. My freshman year I was nervous because I remember it being really close," Spurgeon said. "I would say, as a shooter, this sport is harder when you're watching after you perform. When I'm on the line, it's just me and I'm shooting for myself and working on what I do and going through my shot process.

"When you're shooting you don't really think about your score, but the pressure comes when you're watching and you're adding all the scores up and trying to figure out where everyone stands."

But West Virginia believes it's ready to accept the challenge and can live up to the pressure that comes with defending its crown. They know everyone will be gunning - no pun intended - for the Mountaineers. They have the experience of competing and winning on the big stage, and they're embracing.

"The overall depth of this team is definitely better than we’ve had in the past," said WVU head coach Jon Hammond. "We’ve had some great individuals and teams here, but I think this team as a group works better together. They help each other more.

"From one through eight, all of them are somewhere among the top 15 averages in the country and that’s incredible."

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