The defending national champion West Virginia University rifle team is looking to grab another national title as they travel to compete in the NCAA championship on March 12-13 in Forth Worth, Texas. The No. 1 ranked Mountaineers are coming off of a conference championship victory, winning the GARC title in late February, and are now hoping to double up on their championship hardware.
"This is our important part of the season," said head coach Jon Hammond. "We're just doing some final preparations. I think we're in good shape and ready to go. This last week is just final preparation and the students taking care of their classes. I think we're excited about it and ready to go."
As the Mountaineers prepare for the biggest match of their season, Hammond and the rest of the team cannot help but think back to one year ago when they surprised the country and won the University's 14th national championship. WVU rallied after a sub-par first day of competition to snare the title. Now, after losing just one senior from last year's team, West Virginia is going back to the championship with another year's experience and confidence.
"I think we're in as good of a position [this year as we were last year]," said Hammond. "I think we've shot more consistent, higher scores this year. We've grown in confidence from this year. I think last year we went into the championships knowing that we had the ability to win but we hadn't had success like that with our group. It was still a learning process. This year, I don't think it's going to be any easier to win because we're the defending champions or No. 1 or No. 2. I think the other teams are going to be just as tough. Experience wise, we know a lot more and we know what to expect. Ultimately, it's a new championship and anything can happen on the day."
In the days leading up to the tournament, the Mountaineers have not been spending as much time shooting as one would expect. Since rifle is such a mental sport, they have been focusing on their mental preparation for such a big match. Hammond recognizes that it is important to approach the match with confidence but not to get cocky.
"I like to think that our guys go in there with a certain amount of confidence," said Hammond. "I can't speak for other teams but maybe we do have an intimidating factor. We very much concentrate on ourselves and don't worry about other teams. It's such a mental battle that anything we can do to build up mental strength is huge advantage."
Their mental strength and confidence has obviously been helped by the fact that the Mountaineers are undefeated on their season. Not only have they not lost a match, but the team has been shooting some of their highest scores ever. They got an even bigger boost in scoring when Florence, Italy native, junior Nicco Campriani, joined the team in January.
"We've had a really good year," said Hammond. "We have really raised the bar and I think that's helped us progress. We have enough expectations of our own and what we expect to shoot that those are the biggest pressures on us is what we expect to do every match. We have such a deep team. They have really fed off of each other."
However, after shooting some of the highest scores on the team, the Mountaineers will not have their star shooter for their biggest match of the season. Campriani will be missing the NCAA tournament to travel back to Italy and compete in the European championship.
"It's not my choice," explained Campriani. "I wanted to shoot in the NCAA [tournament]. I shot the entire season. It's not a great moment for me. I won the last one. It's not that important for me. I am more focused on the world championship this year. It's important to my federation so I have to go. I tried to speak with my federation to find a compromise. To win the European championship, you are the champion for one year and for the federation it is pretty important."
While it will undoubtedly be difficult for the Mountaineers to compete without a team member that they have come to rely on, Hammond believes that the team is prepared to shoot without Campriani.
"It's definitely going to be harder," said Hammond. "We would love to have him there. We shot without him for the first semester. We have confidence we can still put up good numbers like we did the first semester. He's been a huge help though out the year and pushed the other shooters. The scores he shoots, we would be better off with. We know the situation and we've dealt with it."
Campriani is confident that his team will be able to bring back their second consecutive NCAA championship without his help.
"They have showed that they really can win everything," said Campriani. "During the season, they were able to win every competition without me. I just helped to increase the difference between us and our opponents. They were already strong."