The race to the 2017 Rifle National Championship looked like a two team competition between West Virginia and TCU entering Saturday's air rifle event. The Mountaineers, who sat at No.2 in the country for the majority of the season, led the No.1 ranked Horned Frogs by just two points after shooting a 2336 in Friday's smallbore competition.
After the day's first air rifle relay, it got even closer. Although Morgan Phillips and Elizabeth Gratz each shot scores of 597 for the Mountaineers, TCU cut WVU's overall lead to just one point after outscoring the Mountaineers 1783-1782. But the good news for West Virginia, who held a 4,119 to 4,118 lead, was that Olympic gold medalist Ginny Thrasher and freshman Milica Babic were yet to shoot.
Although Thrasher has become a household name across the state (and country for that matter), it was Babic who headlined the relay, scoring a field high 598 while Thrasher shot a total of 595. The duo outscored TCU's shooters by 16 in the event, cementing the Mountaineers' 19th total and fifth straight championship. While the tension was palpable throughout the arena, Babic admitted that she didn't even know that West Virginia held just a one point lead in the competition.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't even look at the scores," said Babic. "For me it's just about every shot and being present. Every shot matters and I just tried to go through one by one and at the end I just let everything come to me."
Babic's strong showing in the second relay foreshadowed what would happen just minutes later. After hugging and celebrating her teammates, she went head to head with eight shooters (including three fellow Mountaineers) and beat out roommate Morgan Phillips for the individual air rifle national championship in a final that was filled with drama.
Although Phillips finished second in the event, she has already started to carve out her own legacy as one of the Mountaineers' great shooters. Just 24 hours before, she beat out Ginny Thrasher and won the individual smallbore event, and on Saturday she was named the tournament's most valuable shooter.
"Winning (an individual national championship) was great," said Phillips. "Going into the match I got a little nervous as soon as the time started ticking down but I just worked on the things that we had been working on in practice and I knew I did my job for the team performance so I got to the final and just had fun with it."
But perhaps no one had more fun than head coach Jon Hammond, who has now strung together five straight national championships at West Virginia University. After taking everything in and celebrating with his team, Hammond took some time to reflect on 2016-2017 season.
"I still get emotional," said Hammond. "It's a great win and I'm really pleased with the team and all of the hard work they have put in and it never gets old because it's always a new team and the year is always really long and you always go through things and different ups and downs. This group was obviously a really young group and there was a lot to work on so I'm really pleased for them and the awards they get at the end of it."
West Virginia swept first place for every award in the contest, and with bright young shooters such as Babic and Phillips coming back for three more seasons, there's no reason to think the same won't happen in 2018 and beyond.