Shot Of Gold

It's here, amid gun-loving people, where Jon Hammond is forging ahead in a once-forgotten sport.

The Scottish transplant and second-year head rifle coach at West Virginia University – the flagship educational institution in a red state that doesn't know it – is building both a program and a career against some serious odds.

When the school dropped the sport in 2003, there was such a backlash from the state's 1.8 million residents, some 500,000 of whom hunt, that the administration had little choice but to reinstate it. But in cutting rifle, it also cut the legs out from under inarguably the top NCAA program in history. WVU's 13 national titles were eight more than any other school at the time of its dismissal, and a championship was considered a given at some points – like when the school won 10 of 11 in the 1980s and early 90s.

With reinstatement, many fans thought the Mountaineers would immediately establish themselves as the renewed premier power. But the 12-month gutting severed the school's recruiting ties and tarnished its prep-level reputation enough that top shooters were wary of casting their lot with West Virginia. And when the athletic staff put the sport on a bare-bones budget – forcing it to fund itself through a series of auctions and other fundraisers – the Last Frontier became the first as rival Alaska-Fairbanks continued a decade of domination that culminated in March with its ninth national title in 10 years.

"I think we can win a championship again," Hammond said. "Whether we get to the stage where we win six times out of seven years, I really don't think that is going to happen. The sport isn't as lopsided as it once was."

WVU's hiatus had morphed it into an afterthought in scholastic shooting, and the stress and strain of the job finally caused longtime coach Marsha Beasley to retire after two consecutive losing seasons. The timing was right for Hammond, a World Junior Champion who opted to sign with West Virginia in 2002 after speaking with Mountaineer alum and former Alaska-Fairbanks head coach David Johnson. So he shot while working on a sports management Master's Degree, then began volunteering as an assistant coach in January of 2006. The gig segued into his hire as head coach later that year, and just months later the Aberdeen native was selected by Great Britain to represent its national team in the fourth and final World Cup in Munich.

Hammond's person-best 1,168 of 1,2000 in the 50-meter Three-Position left him a point shy of the British record, and, backed by his personal-best 597 of 600 in the 50-meter Prone in the European Championships, earned him a Quota placement for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. His straight shooting, both on and off the range, has linked the success of his shooting and coaching careers and enamored him in a state that has embraced rifle's still-shaky return.

After going 2-8 and 4-7 in Beasley's final two years, the Mountaineers eked out a 6-4 finish in Hammond's first season before winning eight of 11 matches this year to get back to the NCAAs for the first time in five tries. A sixth-place finish has West Virginia back on the national radar – and with young talent, a hot new coach and the ability to reach into the fertile European recruiting areas, WVU could threaten greatness once more as Hammond does the same.

The 27-year old heads to Fort Benning, Ga. later this month to train and recruit prior to the U.S. Nationals, which begin July 6. The Nationals feature the finest American shooters and are a fertile recruiting tool for collegiate coaches. And with Hammond's ability to identify and connect with young shooters and the promise of reasonable scholarships and Olympic coaching experience, West Virginia should continue its newfound emergence.

"The more I am shooting the more I am learning, and the more I coach the better I am shooting, so it works hand in hand," Hammond said. "Being a coach has helped me as a shooter. Every now and again I will shoot a little with (WVU's team) as well. They like it and it helps them and me."

Seven of WVU's nine current riflemen and its two incoming recruits will shoot at Nationals as well, giving the team solid offseason experience against the best American competition. That, and the addition of Dubois, Pa. native Michael Kulbacki, an eight-time national champion and U.S. Olympic team member since 2006, could boost the Mountaineers into the shortlist of team's capable of winning a national title in the near future.

"Way back, in the 80s and early 90s, there were a lot less schools that had scholarships available," Hammond said. "It is a much more level playing field now, so it is going to be a lot harder for anyone, including us, to be that dominant. I think we can definitely get back to being one of the top teams, and I think we can be there sooner rather than later. (Alaska) brought in some Europeans, and I'd like for us to do that, too. It helps scores and adds to the team dynamic. It makes the American kids here better. They see a different culture, a different way of training. I know because I was in that position."

West Virginia currently has no foreign riflemen on its roster, and seven of the 10 shooters are from surrounding states, a showcase of how much recruiting has narrowed in recent years.

"I think in the next 10 years you will see a lot more teams challenging for and winning titles," Hammond said. "It will be a lot more even. If you go back 10 of 15 years and you were a No. 1 ranked recruit, there would only be two or three schools you would write to that could give you a decent scholarship. There are a lot more now, so even though there are fewer teams overall, there are more scholarships available. There is more competition for recruits. We can't just offer someone a high scholarship and beat someone out because there are a lot more schools that can do that. Now, you can predict the schools that will be in the top 10, but it would be hard to say what schools will win year in and out."

Hammond, named the Great American Rifle Conference Coach of the Year, said he originally took the WVU position knowing he could both coach and train. His preparation then was geared toward the 2012 Olympics in London, but "things fell into place faster than I thought." He and Dr. Ed Etzel, an Olympic Gold Medalist and former West Virginia rifle head coach, talk often about the rigors of international competition and how it can boost coaching and recruiting.

"My own ability has helped with athletes because I am right there going through the same things they are," Hammond said. "It's a very technical sport. Often you are working on different things, the same as golf. Some say they just go and hit golf balls. And, yes, they do go and hit golf balls and we do go and shoot. But it is hours upon hours of honing those skills. If you can shoot a 10, the bullseye, once, you can do it again. It's a matter of doing it 10 times, 60 times, however many times. You get that mental ability to repeat it, be it in bad weather, in a foreign country, whatever.

"It's not simply shooting bullets. There may be working on trigger control, breathing or aim or all kinds of small, technical things that, together, gives you the best skill set. There is physical training as well. You need to be in as good of physical shape as possible. There is plenty of conditioning and core stuff as well. It's starting to hit me that I will be an Olympian and all that goes with it. The shooters can see that and benefit from it."

Note: Hammond has already been to Beijing to shoot, as the final of the four annual World Cups is always held in the Olympic host city.

"We went through the whole routine," he said. "We obviously couldn't stay in the Olympic village, but all the competitions were at the Olympic venues. We got to see Beijing a little bit and get an idea of what we are in for. We won't be able to site see while there, so we went on a couple tours. Someone told us that the actual city and the surrounding areas and suburbs, all classified as Beijing, is the same size as Belgium. I'm excited for it."

Hammond will participate in the opening ceremonies Britain's lone rifle representative. The national coach will accompany him as he competes in the 50-meter Prone, the 60-shot air rifle and the Three-Position.

"It's great publicity," he said. "When I travel around and talk to coaches of other international teams and shooters, the conversation almost always turns to what I'm doing. There has been a great deal of interest about the team (WVU) and West Virginia. There are a lot of interested people throughout Europe. This is just a great thing for recruiting and I'm happy to be representing this school."


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