Top-ranked West Virginia rifle team continues to ascend before hosting NCAA Championships

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s unbeaten and top-ranked rifle team continued its memorable season Saturday by totaling a 4751 during a qualifying match with VMI for the NCAA Rifle Championships at the Bill McKenzie Mobile Rifle Range.

Combined with an average of the Mountaineers’ top three scores from throughout their 13-0 regular season (a 4751 against Akron, 4749 against Ole Miss and 4748 against TCU), West Virginia’s qualifying score of 9500.33 represents the nation’s best mark.

It also ensures the Mountaineers will be among eight teams that qualify for this year’s NCAA Championships to be held March 8-9 at the WVU Coliseum. The full field is to be announced Monday on NCAA.com following the remaining qualifiers Sunday.

“We have a combination of a big senior class with a lot of experience sprinkled in with newer team members as well,” said WVU head coach Jon Hammond. “We wanted to do a few things a little bit differently this year. It’s hard to say if it’s met or surpassed expectations, but we wanted to be back in a position where we were one of the top teams giving ourselves the best chance to compete.”

That’s the case for West Virginia, which has 19 National Championships in rifle, including a five-peat under Hammond from 2013-17. Now in his 18th season overseeing the program, Hammond has six National Championships to his credit.

Whether a seventh is soon to come remains to be seen, but it’s clear the Mountaineers are in the mix if nothing else.

“Over the last several years, we simply haven’t been the best team,” Hammond said. “You cannot control whatever happens at championships, but we had not been going Into championships with a mindset of ‘we’re the best team, we have a really good chance to win.’ We’d kind of gone in with a, ‘we’re going to have to get some help and shoot unbelievable’, and that’s hard to do at championships. Some of our seniors have continued to get better. We have new additions that have added strength and depth to our team.“

In Saturday’s qualifier, the Mountaineers had marks of 2361 in smallbore and 2390 in air rifle. Seniors Molly McGhin and Matt Sanchez, junior Gavin Barnick and freshman Griffin Lake factored into the team totals in both categories, while fifth-year senior Malori Brown counted toward smallbore and freshman Lauri Syria counted toward air rifle.

McGhin, by compiling a 593 in smallbore and 599 in air rifle, was the top scorer, with Sanchez second at 1189 (592 smallbore, 597 air rifle). 

Barnick brings experience at the highest level as a transfer from Alaska-Fairbanks, the 2023 National Champion.

“We’ve had a really good mix. Nobody really stands out above anyone else, but collectively, we’re a really deep team this year,” Hammond said. “We’ve had many different people in the sort of starting lineup and counting team.“

What should only make the Mountaineers more formidable the rest of the way is the return of fifth-year senior Mary Tucker, who is expected back this week ahead of the Great American Rifle Conference Championships February 24-25 in West Point, N.Y.

Tucker was with West Virginia for its first four matches of the season in the fall and compiled an aggregate average of 1189.25, before leaving in an effort to qualify for the United States Olympic Team at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games this summer.

Tucker did just that, qualifying in air rifle, and the Kentucky transfer is set to become the 20th member of West Virginia’s program to compete at the Olympic Games and 14th representing the United States.

Three of the matches Tucker participated in for WVU this season were against Akron, Ole Miss and TCU — the team’s top three scorers before Saturday.

“It’s a unique year leading up to the Olympics and her focus has been on qualifying for the Olympics as much as it’s been on college,” Hammond said. “She graduated last year and is kind of taking advantage of the COVID additional year of eligibility. She shot all but one match in the fall and this semester, she’s been training in Europe. She had a World Cup in Cairo and has another in Spain, and then she’s flying from Spain back to West Virginia on Monday.

“It’s really just how the international circuit broke down. Would we love to have her here on a daily basis and in every single match? Sure, but we’re more than happy to have her some in the fall and our two remaining matches in the spring semester. We’re delighted to have that rather than not have an athlete of that caliber for the whole year.”

As the lead-up to hosting NCAA Championships continues for the Mountaineers, their primary focus is on continued improvement to ensure they peak at the perfect time.

West Virginia was originally slated to host the season-ending event in 2025, while Kentucky was to host this season, but as a result of construction at UK, the two schools switched.

“It didn’t really matter to us whether it was this year or next year, so we swapped with them. We’re definitely excited,” Hammond said. “We preach to team members to stay in the present, so a lot of our focus was on the NCAA Qualifying and then we move on to our conference championships and then move on to NCAAs. At the same time, you’re always planning and prepping, and with us hosting NCAAs at the Coliseum, there’s definitely some thoughts that go toward that as well. Hugely excited to host. We did so in 2019 for the first time and it was an unbelievable event where we broke the attendance record by quite a distance. 

“Just having a rifle match in the Coliseum was really unique. I heard a lot of great feedback from it. Hopefully it’ll be a similar event, and it’s not somewhere we get to compete or even train in, so I guess there’s minimal home-field advantage in that aspect, but we’re making sure we’re building it as a positive and we’re excited. It’s an opportunity you don’t get too often, so our team is competing a lot with each other for who is going to get the opportunity to represent our team and shoot at the Coliseum.”





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