MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The West Virginia University Rifle team will try to earn their fifth consecutive national championship in the same place where the streak began, French Field House at Ohio State University. The first of the four straight titles WVU now owns was won in 2013 when Ohio State hosted the NCAA Rifle Championships and the event returns to Columbus this weekend.
As usual this season, all eyes will turn to sophomore shooter Ginny Thrasher. Thrasher’s amazing freshman year began at the NCAA Championship match a year ago when she swept both individual titles in smallbore and air rifle. She would later go on to win the USA Shooting National Championships and crown her memorable year as winner of the first gold medal in the Rio Olympic games in the women’s air rifle event.
Can she do it again?
“All I can tell you is I’m going to try my best,” laughed Thrasher at the half joking question on Northside Automotive West Virginia Outdoors.
For Thrasher it’s been a whirlwind year of juggling demands for countless interviews and appearances, the rigors of a demanding class schedule where she’s majoring in engineering, and the day to day grind of continuing to hone her skill on the rifle range.
“The last 12 months for me there’s been a lot of growth, not only as a shooter but as a person, and that’s probably the most exciting thing,” she said. “I’m actually getting a little nostalgic. Looking back a year ago to my positions technically and my mental place and all these experiences I’ve been through. They’ve led me to grow and be confident in the range. Going into this NCAA I’m really excited, because I get to see just how much I have grown in the last year.”
Thrasher’s notoriety and the attention which has come with her performance at the Olympics was a potential distraction not only for her, but also for the team. However, the chemistry of the team this year, made up mostly of underclassmen, has adapted well.
“As the Olympic medalist you have more expectations than anyone else. Being able to emotionally detach myself from other people’s expectations and be able to shoot freely and to enjoy shooting has really been a priority for me this year and it’s something I have a great sense of accomplishment about.”
As amazing as it may be to have a gold medal Olympian on the team, what may be even more amazing for the Mountaineers is on certain days Thrasher may not be the team’s best shooter. Each member of the team, including Thrasher, will admit at times an inner-squad practice match can be tougher to win than an actual competition.
“Yeah that’s true,” said junior team member Elizabeth Gratz. “But we all enjoy practicing with each other and learning from each other at a high level. That’s why we all wanted to come here because the team is so competitive and has so much knowledge both nationally and internationally. It’s a really good learning experience for everybody.”
That experience will come in handy since other than Thrasher, none of this year’s shooters have competed in the NCAA match. Gratz is a junior, but did not shoot last year. J.P. Lucas is the team’s only senior, but will shoot in his first national championship this year as well. Also making their first appearances in the title match are freshmen Milica Babic and Morgan Phillips.
“It’s really been amazing. I have such a great team,” she Phillips. “I get to come in everyday with people who have the same mindset as me and who take the sport very seriously. That’s been a huge help just being in that constant environment. There’s a great support staff and the coaches are great. All the resources we have make a huge difference.”
Despite its youth, WVU has not skipped a beat, rattling off 12 straight wins en route to its second straight undefeated season and third unblemished record in four years. Following a nation-high 4724 mark shot in an NCAA Qualifying Match on Feb. 18, the Mountaineers claimed their eighth straight Great American Rifle Conference Championship title on Feb. 25 with a two-day score of 4725. Though the win was never in question, as WVU entered day two with a 30-shot lead following a 2341 smallbore performance on Feb. 24, the Mountaineers ended the weekend with a season-best matching air rifle score of 2384.
“I knew this would be a transition year given the amount of seniors we had last year,” said 11th year head coach Jon Hammond. “As a coach, it’s really motivating to see us keep the standards we want to have. We have had some great, young shooters come in here, and while it has been more of a process this season, they’ve all really worked hard. The older shooters have helped the younger shooters, and while it is a younger team, they’re all competing well at the moment and have really come together in the last couple of months. We’re looking forward to taking this team to the championship.”
Lucas, as the team’s only senior, was one of those older shooters Hammond spoke about, but he admits it was more a process of leading by example. He explained the average shooting score is hardly ever considered when you shoot for WVU.
“We don’t focus on our averages. That’s something that’s hard to control, but we go into the range every day. We train our hardest and put in every little aspect into shooting and that includes what happens outside the range as well.” he explained. “All those little things add up. That’s what we call your total points.”
Lucas explained shooting is a very small part of what it takes to be part of an elite program like WVU.
“We do whatever it takes to better ourselves. That could be in the weight room. That could be sports nutrition. That might just be getting school work done so we don’t have to worry about it over the weekend in a two day match,” Lucas added. “There’s of course lots of little things you can do in the range, but it’s not just what happens in the range.”
The 2017 GARC Shooter of the Year and air rifle champion, Thrasher paces the team in smallbore (589.7) and air rifle (596.1). Babic, the 2017 GARC Rookie of the Year, is a close second in air rifle with a 595 average, while Gratz is third with a 592.9 average. Gratz has shot particularly well as of late, earning an NCAA record 600 at Kentucky on Feb. 11 and following the performance with scores of 598 against MSU and 597 at the GARC Championships, where she ultimately placed fourth overall.
Lucas, the team’s captain for the second straight season, ranks No. 2 in smallbore with a 584.6 average. Gratz is third with a 583.6 average. Phillips is coming off a strong smallbore showing, having shot 586 at the conference championship and finishing second overall with a 454.3 mark.
We’ll find out this weekend if those “total points” which Lucas noted have added up enough to bring home another title for the Mountaineer program. The small bore events happen on Friday and the air rifle event is set for Saturday.