Would it be trite to say the West Virginia University rifle team didn’t rebuild, they just reloaded?
The Mountaineers, a team supposedly depleted by graduation, recently captured their fifth straight national championship, and they did it in record-breaking fashion.
The WVU squad compiled a 4,723 aggregate score, the highest total ever shot at the NCAA rifle tournament. Mountaineer shooters swept the team smallbore title, the individual smallbore title, the team air rifle title and the individual air rifle title.
WVU led by only two points at the end of the smallbore event, but then dominated the air rifle event to finish comfortably ahead of Texas Christian’s runner-up total of 4,706 and Nebraska’s third-place total of 4,676.
The Mountaineers weren’t supposed to be this good, at least not this quickly. The squad lost four key shooters after last year’s championship — Garrett Spurgeon, Meelis Kiisk, Patrick Sunderman and Michael Bamsey.
Coach Jon Hammond had to rebuild, and he did.
He had a good, but young, core for the team in sophomore Ginny Thrasher, fresh off her sweep of the 2016 NCAA smallbore and air rifle individual titles and her Olympic gold medal in the women’s 10-meter air rifle event; senior Jean-Pierre Lucas and junior-to-be Liz Gratz.
To them, Hammond added a couple of dandies — Morgan Phillips from Salisbury, Maryland, and Milica Babic from Belgrade, Serbia. Phillips and Babic put in huge performances at the NCAA tourney; Phillips captured the individual smallbore title and finished second in air rifle. Babic won the individual air rifle title.
Thrasher was WVU’s most consistent shooter throughout the season. She averaged 1,185.8 (out of a possible 1,200) in smallbore and 596.1 (out of a possible 600) in air rifle. Her performance at the NCAA competition fell off a bit in both categories, but Phillips and Babic more than made up the difference.
The Mountaineers stormed through the regular season undefeated, beating opponents by an average of 54.1 points. Yet, inexplicably, as late as Feb. 13 the Collegiate Rifle Coaches Association poll had WVU ranked as the nation’s No. 2 team.
There’s no question who is No. 1 now. The Mountaineers’ national championship was their 19th since rifle became an official NCAA sport in 1980.
Think about that. WVU now has as many championship trophies in its trophy case as all the other NCAA rifle squads combined. And, unless something happens to upset the Mountaineers’ applecart, more trophies should come their way.
This still is a young team. Lucas was the only senior on the team this year, and Gratz will be the only senior on next year’s squad. Thrasher and Will Anti (son of WVU grad and Olympic shooter Mike Anti) will be juniors. Phillips, Babic and Jack Anderson will be sophomores. So will Noah Barker of Winfield, who red-shirted this past season.
And, unless I miss my guess, Hammond is out pounding the bricks in search of the next Mountaineer shooting star. Chances are he’ll find a youngster or two who’d like to spend their next four years riding the WVU juggernaut.
The beat goes on. Lock and reload.