With four returning All-Americans and a sixth place finish at last season's NCAA rifle championships, what might this year's WVU rifle team team do for an encore? While that remains to be seen, West Virginia is off to a 5-0 start under the direction of third year headman Jon Hammond, and has its eyes on the prize of adding an NCAA record 14th national championship to the mantle.
"Obviously we're pleased with the start. 5-0 is great for the records," Hammond said. "We've shown steady improvement each match and I am pleased with how things are going."
After the program was reinstated three years ago, the team has had a fast climb back into the national spotlight. Its appearance and finish at the NCAA championships last season, their first such in six years, have many wondering if the squad has reestablished itself as one the nation's elite programs.
"It's back in terms of being competitive and getting national recognition – but we haven't won anything yet," Hammond said. "We've got a long ways to go, but we're heading in the right direction."
That phrase is highlighted by the team's successful start to this season, the youth which is abundant throughout the team's roster, and the teaching of Hammond, who is still one of the younger coaches in the game
The Mountaineers' nine preson roster includes seven shooters which are either freshman or sophomores. This inexperience may seem like a road block, but when four of those players received All-American honors last season, it's laying the foundation for successful seasons both now and in the future.
"Having four All-Americans gives us the aspect of depth and experience," Hammond said. "The standard is higher this year, and there is competition everywhere within the program. And that competition makes everyone better."
Under Hammond's guidance the Mountaineers have compiled a 19-7 record, and have improved every year. Despite only having two full seasons under his belt as the Mountaineers head coach, Hammond was named by GARC Coach of the Year and the NRA Distinguished College Coach following last season's success. He also competed for Great Britain in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
"It was really neat even though I didn't think about it at the time," Hammond said. "It was nice to have the recognition, especially with me being a young coach. It makes me feel the things that I am doing are the right things and are in the right direction. But I would trade it all to see this team succeed."
For the Mountaineers to have the chance to add another national championship to the record books, they are going to have to avenge their three loses from last season. The most daunting of those foes is Alaska-Fairbanks, the team which was won 9 of the last 10 NCAA championships and once again appears to be the favorite. The Mountaineers are hoping to avenge their narrow decision to the Nanooks last season.
"Avenging defeats is definitely a motivating factor; it's always going to be in the back of everyone's mind," Hammond said. "We'll shoot against Alaska-Fairbanks this January, but until you knock them off they're still the team to beat."
With all of the talent and youth surrounding the program, it's hard not to get excited for what the future holds. But as Coach Hammond advises, this Mountaineer team isn't buying into the hype; they are adhering to the old cliché and just taking it one match at a time.
"The excitement is back around the team. There is a lot of enthusiasm," Hammond said. "We're focused on winning every match one at a time, and improving on each performance. Hopefully one day we'll be able to bring another NCAA Championship."