The WVU Rifle Team is tops in the nation these days. The team is undefeated, ranked #1 in the NCAA standings, and recently shot a team record high score. As an encore they topped the score two matches later with an NCAA record high score. The world is coming up rosy for the dead-eyed student athletes at the Shell Building.
A little history needs to be injected into the situation to fully understand all of that very nearly never happened.
The Mountaineer rifle program is no stranger to success. The team struck gold the moment the sport became sanctioned by the NCAA and never relinquished the choke hold it held on the top spot for more than a decade.
But in April, 2003, the WVU Athletic Department made a fateful decision. Budgets were tightening and the impact of the Title IX requirements were stiffening on the university. Non-revenue sports were in the line of fire. WVU Athletic Director at the time Ed Pastilong made the decision to cut five non-revenue sports from the lineup. The casualties were men’s tennis, men’s cross country, indoor, and outdoor track, and rifle.
It may have proved to be one of the worst decisions the school ever made, and they heard about it from across the state. There was very little resistance to the decision regarding tennis and track, but the rifle team was a different animal as Pastilong and then WVU President David Hardesty soon learned.
Supporters across the state flooded radio talk shows and lit up the legislature’s switchboard with complaints. Lawmakers and Governor Bob Wise were quick to seize upon the anger.
“This is a team that is a consistent winner for West Virginia, a great representative for our state,” Wise said during an interview at the time. “It’s the only true co-ed sport there is in the sense of men and women both participating on the same team.”
“I’m not a stranger to having to make tough choices and make budget cuts you hate to make, and so I’m not going to second guess,” Wise added. “It’s not the kind of thing where you’re going to pack stadiums, but at the same time, you have a lot of pride in what they’ve accomplished.”
The program went through some lean times, serving one season as a club sport. But state lawmakers eventually became engaged and forced WVU to reinstate the program with legislation. The caveat was rifle would have to find its own revenue stream through various fundraising efforts and legislative appropriations.
President Hardesty reluctantly accepted the reinstatement. I remember his remarks during a press conference in which the reinstatement was made official. He ended by saying something along the lines of, “…now with this issue settled, maybe we can get on to other very important business of research funding for the university….”
The WVU administration lost in a turf war. They were unhappy about it, however, they eventually got over it and life moved on.
The biggest argument against dropping the program was its level of success. When the decision was made the rifle team had 13-National Titles and more than 180-All American titles, and had produced a dozen Olympic shooters. It was literally the best shooting program in America.
The rebirth wasn’t overnight. Then Coach Marsha Beasley was among the most loyal and committed to the shooters she recruited, but eventually had to leave a position that no longer existed. When the program was reinstated, John Hammond was hired for the coaching job.
Hammond, a native of Great Britain, has since broadened the school’s recruiting base and is now attracting not only the best shooters in Amerce, but the best in Europe as well.
The trophies are starting to once again to overflow the glass case outside the shooting range. The walls around the range are packed with All-American plaques. WVU shooters are again wearing Olympic gold. Nico Camprini was the gold medalist for Team Italy this past summer. WVU Senior Petra Zublasing was a member of Team Italy as well and expects to qualify again in four-years.
The future is bright for the Mountaineer Rifle Team and that is a bright spot for the WVU Athletic Department. The rifle team may not draw down high dollar donations to the program, but what it lacks in cash attraction is more than made up for in hardware and prestige. There are few NCAA teams in any sport who can match the resume of the rifle team. The majority of student athletes who shoot for WVU are also excellent students and put up equally impressive numbers on the range and in the classroom. It’s a true co-ed sport. There is no men’s or women’s program. Men and women compete as equals against each other.
The people of West Virginia are exceedingly proud of the team. We’re a state where shooting sports and gun ownership are not only practiced but embraced. Therefore having the most successful shooting program in the world comes as no surprise. The pride and adoration for the team are truly the reasons it survived back in 2003. The recent success only galvanizes fan support.
Think about it, you don’t see the Mountaineer walking around Mylan Pushkar Stadium or the WVU Colisieum carrying a tennis racket.