When you think of consistent program success, think of the West Virginia rifle squad. Led by head coach Jon Hammond, the Mountaineers have dominated the sport for the better part of the last decade, winning four national championships overall and seven-straight Great American Rifle Conference titles.
Tomorrow morning, the Mountaineers begin the first of two days of competition at the NCAA Championships at Stiles Athletic Field House in Akron, Ohio. West Virginia will enter with a target on its back, no pun intended, as the foremost program in the sport of rifle.
If you think that sounds like it would put a lot of pressure on a team, in most cases you’d be right, but West Virginia has had so much experience in dealing with this type of spotlight that everyone on board, even the younger shooters, should know what to expect.
“At the end of the day, like coach (Hammond) said, it’s just another match, and even for me and Meelis (Kiisk) being seniors, it’s not our last match. We’re going to shoot other matches, so in that respect, there’s no pressure of ‘Oh, it’s my last match, I need to do this or that.’ It’s just another match. After this match we each of personal matches that we’re going to go shoot; whether it be personal trials or national championships and things like that. I think we all do a good job of treating it as just the next match,” said senior shooter Garrett Spurgeon.
West Virginia will be one of eight teams vying to take home the trophy this weekend. Included in the field is Murray State, which WVU defeated earlier this season in the same venue where the championships will be taking place. Spurgeon said having that experience at Akron earlier in the year should help WVU immensely, as shooting in an unfamiliar venue can be quite the challenge.
“The lighting is going to change as you go from place to place. That’s something you have to adjust for, but other than that, we’re shooting the same distance. Everybody is side-by-side. There’s not much that changes,” he said.
“It was really nice for us to go up there earlier in the season and get a match in, because we shot under the same conditions we’re going to have for NCAAs. Everybody’s been exposed to that.”
Spurgeon and the aforementioned Meelis Kiisk are two of the four seniors on WVU’s eight-man roster. Kiisk took a redshirt year last season after the birth of his child, a baby girl, and he said that unique situation has helped him grow in all phases of his life; including on the rifle range.
“It’s definitely an experience redshirting in the middle of your college career. I used it as an opportunity to get better, and I’m happy that I had the opportunity to redshirt. I feel like it helped me a lot, because I have a child now, and it kind of gave me a bit more flexibility when my daughter was born and throughout the whole year last year. Now I feel like I’m shooting a lot better just for having that extra year,” he said.
“I think it gave me a lot of time to grow as a person. I remember my freshman and sophomore year I was always worried about different things. When I was in practice I was thinking about school work, but now when I’m in practice I just leave everything else behind and just work on myself and improving my skills as a shooter.”
While the expectations of the rest of the rifle world rests on their shoulders, WVU’s senior shooters are not stressing. Taking a business-like approach to this meet could be what helps the Mountaineers bring home their 18th overall NCAA Championship.
“We create a lot of pressure for ourselves, but every match we treat as another match. I think that kind of helps us to stay focused on just what we are doing, rather than the expectations we or someone else puts on us,” Kiisk said.
The two-day competition begins tomorrow morning at 8, and will resume at the same time Saturday morning.