Collegiate athletics have a knack for bringing about the unexpected.
Two weekends ago, for example, the Marshall University men’s basketball team upset Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky on consecutive nights to win the Conference USA championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Surprising as that was, it wasn’t nearly as unexpected as West Virginia University’s rifle team losing in the NCAA Rifle Championships. After rolling through the regular season undefeated and almost untested, the top-ranked Mountaineers fell in the tournament to No. 4 Kentucky, 4717-4708.
The WVU squad dug itself a hole during the smallbore phase of the two-day competition, a hole that proved too deep to escape; Kentucky held a 17-point lead over the Mountaineers, 2345-2327.
West Virginia coach Jon Hammond called his team’s showing “a tough day.”
WVU roared back to capture the air rifle competition. Their 2381-point total edged out Texas Christian and Kentucky, but wasn’t enough to overcome the first-day smallbore deficit.
Kentucky picked a great time to post its best aggregate score of the season. WVU picked a lousy time to post its fourth-worst.
At the midway point of the regular season, no one would have dreamed the Mountaineers might fall anywhere short of a sixth straight national title. WVU was a juggernaut in November, crushing opponents by an average of 57 points. Their opponents during that period weren’t exactly slouches, either — No. 2 TCU, Army, No. 10 Memphis and No. 3 Murray State.
During their undefeated stretch, the Mountaineers broke every NCAA team record in the books. They shot a record 2346 in smallbore against Murray State. They shot a record 2392 in air rifle against Ole Miss. And, on the same day they set the smallbore record, they broke the aggregate record with a mind-bending 4742 against Murray State.
“I don’t want this team to be defined by one weekend and coming up short to a fantastic Kentucky performance,” Hammond said after WVU’s loss to the Wildcats. “It’s been a great year, and we’ll move on to the next year.”
Ah, next year.
It’s hard to believe, but this year’s Mountaineer squad was a bit on the young side. All but one of the team’s top shooters will return for the 2018-19 season. WVU will say goodbye to senior Elizabeth Gratz, but will welcome back a slew of talented underclassmen.
Among them will be 2016 Olympic air rifle gold medalist Ginny Thrasher, who will be a senior. It seems like only yesterday when, as a freshman, she swept the NCAA individual smallbore and air-rifle titles and led the Mountaineers to the 2015-16 national championship.
Morgan Phillips, who captured the individual smallbore titles in this year’s and last year’s NCAA tournaments, will be a junior. So will Milica Babic, who won last year’s individual air-rifle championship.
That’s a pretty strong core.
The rest of the team will consist of senior-to-be Will Anti, junior-to-be Jack Anderson, and sophomores-to-be David Koenders, Sarah Osborn and Noah Barker. All of them are seasoned shooters.
Some readers might notice Noah Barker’s name. He’s from Winfield, and he got his start shooting for the Putnam County Gun Club’s Youth Smallbore Team.
You can bet coach Hammond will add another recruit or two to the mix by the time classes open this fall. He’ll be adding ammunition to an already-loaded squad. Next year should be fun.