Home On The Range

After a hiatus of two months, the nation's top-ranked rifle team returns to action this morning when it hosts North Carolina State at the WVU Rifle Range.

Rifle is a unique sport in that it takes such a lengthy break in the middle of its season.

West Virginia has not competed since before Thanksgiving, but it ended the fall semester with a bang (no pun intended) by turning in a program record score in defeating No. 2 Kentucky 4691-4642 in Morgantown.

That tally is believed to be the highest score recorded by any team in college rifle since the NCAA changed to its current 60-shot course format at the start of the 2004-05 season.

With such a solid end to the fall, one might expect Mountaineer head coach Jon Hammond to have hoped the break would have never come.

But Hammond was a member of the WVU rifle team just a few short years ago and competed on behalf of his native Great Britain in the Olympics just a year and a half ago, so he understands the rigors of a long training schedule better than most.

"In a lot of aspects, it's almost needed," said Hammond of the lengthy hiatus. "At the end of the fall, they've been pretty much training since they came back at the beginning of the fall. By the end of the semester, they're pretty tired."

"It's not like football where they're beat up (physically), but they're more beat up mentally than anything. Between finals and classes, just having trained and all the matches, you really need that break just to get away from the sport and just tune out and relax for awhile."

While fall competition ended with that victory over the Wildcats on Nov. 21, the Mountaineer shooters continued to practice until the week before finals.

That, along with a schedule tailor-made to quickly get WVU back in a competitive frame of mind (as the squad faces an always-tough Alaska-Fairbanks team in just four days), should help to keep any rustiness to a minimum.

"For the most part, a lot of that training comes back pretty quickly," Hammond said. "They're mentally rested, but it may take just a week or two to get fully back in the swing of things technically in terms of the shooting. But we can use all the matches this spring to build up to the postseason."

"I wouldn't have liked to have had that Alaska match as the first one. We'll shoot against N.C. State (today), and we'll effectively have been back for almost two weeks training. That's enough time to be ready for a match. We might not be at our absolute peak, but that's okay too. The goal is not to peak in our first match back. It's to peak in our last match."

The fourth-year coach got his team to do just that a season ago, when it recovered from a loss to Kentucky in the Great American Rifle Conference championships and a poor showing in smallbore on the first day of the NCAA Championship match.

West Virginia came back on the last day of the national championships, moving from sixth to first by having all four of its competitors finish in the top 10 in the country in air rifle.

Only a few years removed from not having a rifle program at all, the Mountaineers had their 14th national championship in the sport.

Of course, the teams Hammond and company face this season know that WVU is the proverbial top dog in the collegiate rifle world.

While in other sports, it's often said that the No. 1 team has a target on its back (again, no pun intended), that can work against athletes in a sport like rifle, which requires so much mental focus and physical discipline -- things that emotion can work to destroy.

"It goes on individuals, really," said Hammond. "Some are able to rise the challenge and shoot their best in those bigger matches, and others, it may be the opposite -- there's too many nerves and it's too big a match for them. Some teams will come in and put up their best performance and shoot really well, and others have some of that intimidation factor of, ‘Oh wow, we're shooting against the top team here.'"

"I know when I was on the team, sort of five, six or seven years ago and Alaska was dominant, whenever they came here, we always seemed to shoot our best match of the year. We didn't necessarily win, but we rose to the challenge and knew we had to shoot the best we possibly could to have any chance of beating Alaska, and we always did that. So I'm sure the rest of the teams we'll shoot against this semester will be up for the challenge and ready to shoot the best they can."

While West Virginia enters the spring semester as the clear No. 1 team in America, Hammond said it is not ready to perform at its best as of yet.

That will come with continued work in practice at the WVU Rifle Range and in matches throughout the rest of the regular season, before postseason play begins with NCAA Qualifiers on Feb. 13 against Nebraska.

"I wouldn't say I'm unsatisfied by any means, but there's definitely plenty of work to be done," Hammond said. "But that's okay. There's nothing that's particularly badly wrong. They're all shooting okay. But we've got a good way to go to get to our peak performance level."

"That's how I expected it to be this time of year. We'll try to make gradual improvements the rest of the season."

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