The West Virginia Mountaineer Rifle squad added a 14th National Championship to the team’s long history of success last weekend, but in many ways this may be one of the sweetest ever for the band of dead eye’s in Morgantown.

"I know it’s number 14, but none of us have many connections with the 90’s and the success of the team back there,” said shooting Coach Jon Hammond. "For everyone around the program now and associated with it, it almost seems like the first one again and I think that’s very special for the kids.’

Once the lion of competitive NCAA shooting, the Mountaineers ascension back to the top didn’t come with a storm, but with a flare of the dramatic.  The Mountaineers made up a 22-point deficit in the final rounds of the air rifle competition to win the match by five points.

The team jockeyed between Kentucky and Alaska-Fairbanks all season in the one, two, and three positions in the country.  Therefore going into last weekend’s competition at Texas Christian University there was a feeling of confidence that the team would be in the hunt.  However, after a dismal performance on Friday the possibility seemed all but lost.

"I was pretty upset and the team was obviously upset with their performance.  The team really struggled with their performance," said Hammond. "We talked about is on Friday night and I told them, ‘You’ve probably blow your chance, but the pressure is off and all you can do now is go out and do your best.’"

"We were in sixth place at that point, there wasn’t any pressure on us to come out as national champions," laughs shooter Bryan Wallizer. "He told us basically, just got to relax.  He did tell us, ‘Miracles can happen.’  I guess they can."

The bread and butter of this year’s squad has been the air rifle competition among all of the team members.   Saturday’s scores were slowly improving when Wallizer and fellow shooter Tommy Santelli went to the line and by the mid-way point the strength of the scores had put the Mountaineers in position to grab the title. 

The newest hardware for a packed trophy case at the WVU Rifle Range in Morgantown

"I was slightly disappointed in my performance, because I thought I could have done a little better," said Wallizer. "I walked up to my coach and he was teary eyed.  I thought we were in sixth place without a chance."

While the Mountaineers were pouring it on, the other contenders were collapsing under the pressure.

"We were watching Kentucky’s score and basically counting the points and once we realized we’d won, it was incredible," said Santelli. "We were all just standing there dumbfounded that we had pulled off the comeback of NCAA history."

"Every shot that the other teams dropped we got closer," said Hammond. "After a little while we realized we caught Jacksonville.   Alaska had a great start on that second relay, and then their two shooters faded, and we got Alaska and we new we had second."

It came down to the final ten shots by the University of Kentucky’s riflemen who faltered in their final shots, giving WVU the title.

It’s an amazing feat for a team that was dropped as a sport in 2003, only to be reinstated in 2005.   Hammond was hired in 2007 and marveled at the character of his squad.  

 "I really wanted to get the team back to being competitive with all of the other teams and being able to go out there and win," Hammond said.

"I wasn’t here at the beginning when it was cut, and I’m glad for that," said Wallizer. "But at the same time I’m glad I could restore the glory of the rifle team."

Santelli is a little more forthcoming in his defense of the program.

"We have a chip on our shoulder and we’re going to be the pinnacle of the NCAA again,” Santelli said. "We took it on as a challenge and meet the challenge head-on."


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