First, the ranking. There's no consipracy in play, and thankfully ESPN isn't involved. Rifle rankings totally eliminate personal bias by taking the average of each team's best three scores, shot at three different venues, over the course of the season. There's no “eye test” no “Dookie V” hyping up a favorite, and no writers displaying obvious biases. It's simply take the scores, do the math, and publish the results.
Oddly enough, this worked against WVU this season, where it has held the number two spot behind TCU for much of the season. Were it simple polling that determined the top teams, the Mountaineers would likely have been first throughout. It just so happens that in this sport, it's performance, not reputation, that wholly determines the rankings.
This seems to be a very fair system. Teams can't load up by shooting all of their top scores at home – at least two of them must come away from their home range. It also prevents one or two “hot days” from serving as the sole means of evaluation. Consistency counts.
WVU enters the postseason second, with scores of 4726, 4725 and 4724 working out to a 4725 average. TCU leads by less than two points, with a 4726.67 average. Both schools stand well ahead of number three Murray State with 4717.
As many might point out, rankings don't mean a lot when getting to the postseason. For the NCAA Qualifiers and the national championships, it's again all about performance. But will with #2 ranking serve as a motivating factor?
Olympic gold medalist and defending individual national champion Ginny Thrasher doesn't think so, at least not directly.
“I don't think we think about it too much, but I enjoy being the underdog. I think it's kinda fun,” she said, bypassing the obvious dissonance of the Mountaineers being viewed as a rifle underdog. “But that doesn't affect how you perform. The regular season doesn't matter. What matters is what happens in the postseason.”
That certainly makes sense, as rifle isn't a sport where emotions play a role. Or, at least, a winning role. Getting emotional or reacting to anything that happens can have a huge effect on the next shot, so those sorts of things have to be eliminated. There's no pre-match huddle, no shouting or motivational slogans. Matches are a bit like watching a chess tournament, where silence reigns, and is only broken by the soft reports of shots along the line.
Head coach Jon Hammond admits that the ranking is something that he and the team knows about.
“We are conscious of it for sure. But the fact is TCU have been shooting great this year. It's nice to have competition. Maybe it fuels a little bit to keep working hard and keep pushing and know that there's other good competition out there. But the main part of that and how to be successful has to be staying focused on yourself.”
WVU shot a 4724 (2345 smallbore, 2379 air rifle) in the NCAA qualifiers at home this past weekend, which, combined with the season rankings described above, will put both disciplines safely into the eight team NCAA Championship. The teams will be announced at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday on NCAA.com. Combined with TCU's lower 4704 score, it also figures to make WVU the top seed at the national championships. Again, though, that's not a huge factor for a team and a program that is the very definition of taking it one match, and one shot, at a time.
Before the NCAA hampionships, which are held Mar 10-11 in Columbus, the Mountaineers will go for their eighth consecutive Great American Rifle Conference title in Akron this weekend.