CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It didn't make big headlines at the time, but West Virginia University's most successful athletic team collected another big-time trophy last weekend.The WVU rifle team rode the strong shooting of senior Petra Zublasing en route to its 15th national championship.Let that number soak in a minute.It's hard for an athletic team to win even one national championship. Yet, since 1980, when the NCAA began recognizing rifle as an official team sport, the Mountaineers have captured 15 titles. That's 44 percent of all the first-place trophies ever awarded.That number might have been even higher if the powers-that-be at the state's land-grant university hadn't misguidedly disbanded the team in April 2003.Athletes who had been recruited to compete for WVU in officially sanctioned NCAA matches suddenly became highly disillusioned members of a rifle club, roughly on par with the university's field hockey, archery and roller derby clubs.No matter that WVU's shooters had, by then, already collected 13 national titles and the Mountaineers were considered one of the top two rifle teams in the country. Of far more importance to athletic-department officials was scrounging up enough cash to keep Rich Rodriguez on the job as the Mountaineers' football coach, so they eliminated the school's rifle, indoor track, outdoor track, men's tennis and men's cross-country teams.Fortunately, the rifle team had a lot more friends than they might have imagined. West Virginians had grown justifiably proud of the squad's past accomplishments, and they pitched an unholy fit. Within a year, key members of the state Legislature had forced WVU administrators to reinstate the team.
But the damage had been done. Marsha Beasley, who had coached the team to eight national championships in 16 years, resigned in 2006. Jon Hammond, a Scotland native who shot on the 2002-03 Mountaineer squad and later earned a graduate degree in sports management, took over the program.It took Hammond a couple of years to rebuild the program, but rebuild it he did. In 2009, the Mountaineers clawed their way back into the limelight by claiming their 14th national title.Now they've done it again.And they did it in grand style. The team's aggregate total of 4,679 was the second-highest ever recorded at the NCAA championships, and Zublasing became the first shooter since 2001 to capture individual titles in both smallbore and air rifle in the same year.The individual titles were the second and third for Zublasing, who also won last year's air rifle title. The senior engineering major now plans to focus on international competition, with an eye toward representing her native Italy in the Olympics.Had Kentucky not shot the lights out in 2011, WVU might be celebrating their third championship of the post-disbandment era. The Wildcats piled up a record-setting 4,700 points, 18 more than Alaska-Fairbanks had amassed during the 2006 tournament. WVU's runner-up total of 4,697 would have won any previous championship quite handily.Clearly, Hammond has WVU's program rolling again. The Mountaineers are once again considered one of the nation's elite programs, and their success is sure to attract top-notch high school shooters eager to strut their skills at the collegiate level.
Perhaps the school's next goal should be to reward the squad by giving it a better place to shoot. The current WVU range, tucked into an upper floor of the Shell Building, has only 10 firing points, too few to host even a regional competition.The WVU baseball team hasn't won diddly-squat, and it's getting a new stadium. It's time the school showed similar love for its 15-time champions.