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WVU rifle off to strong start

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University’s rifle team is off to a hot start in the first half of the 2021-22 season, having posted three of the top four aggregate scores in the nation in the early going of the season on the way to a 3-0 record.

The Mountaineers posted a 4733 score in a win over Mississippi on Oct. 2 and backed that up with a 4725 showing against Murray State the next day. WVU was a bit off that pace a week later, but still fired a very good 4718 score in downing Memphis at home last Saturday.

Rifle, head coach Jon Hammond notes, is different from most other sports in that there is no defense played and no control exerted over one’s opponent. (In that regard, it’s most similar to golf.) Therefore, the scores posted by each team are self-contained and form the basis of polls and selection for the NCAA Championships. By way of comparison, Kentucky took last year’s NCAA title with a score of 4731, with TCU finishing second at 4722. The Mountaineers were fourth at 4704.

Defending national champion Kentucky, along with Mississippi and TCU, were all expected to be at the top of the NCAA rankings this year, and there’s nothing to suggest they won’t be there again. The Horned Frogs own the third- and fifth-best aggregate scores of the young season, and Ole Miss also has two aggregate team scores in the Top 10. (Kentucky did not field either of its Olympic medalists in its single match to date, and still put up a score of 4680.)

The Mountaineers, though, have been a bit stronger than expected, with solid scores up and down the five-member counting squads in both smallbore and air rifle. Sophomore Tal Engler has been the leader so far, setting career highs in both smallbore (591) and air rifle (598) this fall. She has topped the 1180 aggregate mark in all three of her matches to date.

Malori Brown, Jared Eddy, Akihito Shimizu, Verena Zaisberger and Calista Smoyer have joined as regular counters to help propel West Virginia to early-season success, but without question far more difficult challenges await. The Mountaineers still have dual matches remaining with TCU and Kentucky, along with N.C. State this Saturday on the road in Raleigh, North Carolina. It will be vital for WVU to continue to post solid scores from all five team members to have a chance at postseason titles.

Another bit of good news about WVU’s early-season high scores is that they give the Mountaineers a great base for making the NCAA Championships again. Selections for that event are based on a combination of the scores shot in a qualifying match at the end of the season and a team’s three highest scores at three different venues. WVU, with three scores well north of 4700, are in good shape to build an excellent qualifying score. The Mountaineers are scheduled for their NCAA Qualifier at their home range, competing alongside VMI and North Georgia, on Feb. 19.

The Mountaineers won five consecutive national titles from 2013-17, but Kentucky (2018, 2021) and TCU (2019) have won the last three. The 2020 Championship was canceled due to Covid.