Remarkable Rebound

It had taken the West Virginia rifle team just five years to get back the top. On February 10th, the Mountaineers gained their No.1 ranking, a place they held until Great American Rifle Conference championships on February 28 where the Mountaineers took second place behind Kentucky.

After being cut from the WVU athletics program in 2004 due to budget cuts, the rifle team was reinstated one year later due in part to public outcry. Rebuilding the program seemed to be an overwhelming task, as there was simply no precedent for a reconstruction that started from ground zero. The only close situation might have been that of SMU's football team, which was shut down for one year due to NCAA violations. That program has never recovered or even come close to sniffing its former glory. Even battling back to respectability appeared to be a long, tough fight.

Enter Jon Hammond, a member of the rifle team when it was cut, became a Mountaineers' head coach in 2006. In one of the best coaching and recruiting jobs on record, the matter of fact mentor has WVU back battling with the nation's elite.

"It's absolutely been a great experience," said Hammond of the team's remarkable recovery. "It's been very satisfying to be improving the team every year. There's a sense of accomplishment having done that. I sat back this weekend at the conference championships and I remember when I was there years ago when Marsha (Beasley) was the coach and my first year and we didn't get any awards. We weren't really involved in the awards ceremony in the end. (This year) was have been winning more trophies and being more successful."

Hammond had a solid first season as the Mountaineers' head coach with a record of 6-4. In his second year, Hammond and his shooters finished 8-3. The Mountaineers finished third place in the Great American Rifle Conference championship. He also led the Mountaineers' to their first appearance at the NCAA tournament in six years.

This season Hammond and his team exceeded all expectations, suffering just one loss to Kentucky in the regular season. The Mountaineers finished their regular season 11-1 before traveling to Oxford, Miss for the conference championships.

At the GARC championships, the Mountaineers faced off with Kentucky again. WVU fought a close battle with the Wildcats. The Mountaineers were edged by just five points 4650-4645. West Virginia took first place in the air rifle category with 2350 points and Kentucky snagged the smallbore category with the Mountaineers coming in second with a score of 2295 points.

"Overall, it wasn't a bad performance," admitted Hammond. "We obviously would have liked to have won the tournament. There were things that weren't particularly good performance wise. I think we struggled more the first day. We maybe struggled just a fraction with nerves. I think that's pretty normal. All teams are going to have nerves. The good thing was that we came back strong the second day with air rifle. We can shoot better than we did but to gain ten points on Kentucky was definitely a positive for us. "

The Mountaineers' recent success has giving the rifle program much more public interest than the program has ever had before. Coach Hammond has had a much easier time recruiting for his team as of late.

"It has definitely helped a lot," Hammond admitted. "We are very fortunate that we got some good kids in that first year that I recruited. The biggest difference now is that there is more exposure of the team. People nationally are certainly a lot more aware of us. That then leads to more people being interested."

West Virginia has one last try to get their No. 1 ranking back. They travel to Texas for the NCAA tournament on March 14-15 with hopes of claiming yet another national title.

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