Youthful Infusion

West Virginia is selling a fresh beginning in rifle, a new start for an old power that lost its luster when it lost its funding.

After proving the twisted adage that money talks or ‘bore shooters walk, WVU is trying to reinvent itself with a youthful coach and a new approach that includes an unsullied commitment from both the administration and the newly-hired Jon Hammond.

"The university made a commitment to me, and I would not make this commitment if I did not thing this team was safe and that we can create something special again," said Hammond, who is WVU's fifth head coach since the program stopped using military personnel in 1977. "I am very confident this team is back and here to stay, hope that I can make the right impression to recruits."

The 25-year-old Scotland native is WVU's youngest head coach in any sport, and he is taking over a program that isn't what it once was. Gone is the time when the top shooters automatically listed the Mountaineers as a top choice, when winning titles was nearly foregone at the start of the season, when anything less was akin to failure.

West Virginia was, like coal, at one time king, winning 13 national titles in 16 seasons. But after a long and well-documented downfall, it's no longer a power, even in a sport in which less than 50 teams compete. Proof is a sixth-place finish last year at the Great America Rifle Championships, a tournament once thought of as merely WVU and the dwarfs.

It wasn't just that the program was dropped, then its funding cut, or that shooters left when tempers flared. That it took an act of legislature to reinstate a program with a .876 winning percentage, or that former head coach Marsha Beasley lost her only graduate assistant and was doing more work for 43 percent less pay. It wasn't any of those things singularly. But together they caused a continental-sized divide that couldn't be overcome.

So it was that Beasley opted out, and West Virginia opted for a youth-infusion that could be just what it needs.

"It's for recruits to decide (if they want to come here)," Hammond said. "Some will still want to go to Alaska-Fairbanks or other places, but I'm selling a new beginning at West Virginia."

The rifle team's budget was $163,000 when it was dropped from NCAA status in 2003. That year the state issued a then-one-time grant for $100,000 when the team was brought back, and renewed that this season. That still leaves West Virginia $63,000 short of its previous budget, and that was in 2003 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, the team falls further behind.

It was helped when one person donated a competition rifle, worth approximately $2,500. The team has also auctioned off Harley Davidsons, held a Gun Bash (raising $150,000) and created a $1,200 club, much like football's $1,100 club in that one receives extras (shirts, hats, stickers, etc.) upon donating that much. It even tweaked the setup, allowing individuals, groups, and University classes to donate together. Even that was not enough to satisfy to-flight recruits.

According to Beasley, the school still gets continual questions from shooters. The queries have led to calls to WVU President David C. Hardesty, who, Beasley said, guaranteed that the team would be around in the foreseeable future and as long as he was president.

"I still certainly get questions, and I can't blame then for wondering," Beasley said. "But I think recruits are more accepting of answer now than two years ago. I think the program is here, but the funding remains an issue."

That has led to West Virginia slicing scholarships. The full allotment in rifle is low to start, at 3.6. WVU used just 1.4 last year. That's the equivalent, roughly, to giving the basketball team less than five of its usual 12 scholarships, and the football team 33 of its allowed 85. Beasley has split up scholarships, like most non-revenue sports do. Her top shooter has a half scholarship. Others have 33 and 25 percent. She has also taken additional walk-ons.

"The shooters that are there have a lot of promise and potential," Hammond said. "The first goal is to work with those guys and make them better. Sure, it would be nice to have a few more (scholarships) available, a few more incoming recruits. But every year we are going to try and bring in some really good shooters."

Hammond said the recruiting hotbeds of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey would remain the focus. Georgia is also a great shooting area, and Hammond's European roots will allow for increased recruiting there. He did note, however, that "good recruits pop up anywhere, and we have always be on the lookout."

Hammond's innovative style will include a renewed focus on all aspects of shooters' lives. He was the world junior prone champion in 1998 and has competed as a member of the Great Britain and Scottish national teams at world, European and Commonwealth championships. Hammond shot for WVU from 2002-03 while working on his master's degree in sport management and plans to utilize his European background and closeness in age to connect with shooters.

"I picked up some new things from international styles, and I'll work closely with mental skills and mental shooting," Hammond said. "I can interact on a more personal basis, and being closer in age to them, might be able to relate to them better, having shot on the team just three years ago.

"It's definitely going to be difficult (to follow Beasley). It's a big honor to get the job because she has accomplished a lot. Eight national titles is a pretty big thing. It is something that I can aspire to do. It is going to be a compromise, and hopefully every year through find raising, over the years the support will get back there from the athletic department. It is not going to happen overnight."

Hammond will officially begin duties June 1.

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