19 and Counting
By Brian McCracken
Just two weeks ago West Virginia University’s rifle program won its fifth straight and 19th overall national championship. Although coming home with first place has become an expectation for many, the 2017 championship run was a little bit different for the Mountaineers.
Entering the season WVU was tasked with reloading (sorry for the pun) its roster after it lost four of the five shooters who competed in the 2016 NCAA championships. Combine that with the fact that the Mountaineers’ spent much of this season ranked No. 2 in the polls behind TCU, and winning another national title was anything but a certainty entering the NCAA championship in Columbus.
Still, West Virginia’s young and relatively inexperienced roster grew throughout the year and finished the regular season with a perfect 12-0 record and an eighth straight GARC title. The favorite to win the national title, however, resided 1,200 miles away in Fort Worth, Texas. TCU, much like West Virginia, was undefeated in the regular season and had shot higher aggregate scores throughout the year. But in order to dethrone the Mountaineers, the Horned Frogs would have to outshoot West Virginia in Columbus. Although eight teams competed in the event, it was virtually a two-team showdown between West Virginia and TCU to see who would bring home the trophy.
After the first day of competition, the Mountaineers held a narrow margin over the Horned Frogs after outshooting TCU by a score of 2336-2334 in the smallbore discipline. Friday afternoon’s competition was highlighted by the performance of freshman Morgan Phillips, who shot a career-high 589 to win the individual national championship in the event.
“I came in here just expecting to perform the way I know how to perform,” said the Salisbury, Md., native. “I really wasn’t thinking about the match. I was just thinking about the things we did in practice all year. Winning (an individual national championship) was great.
“Going into the match, I got a little nervous as soon as the time started ticking down,” added Phillips. “But I just worked on the things that we had been working on in practice. I knew I had to do my job for the team performance. So when I got to the final, I just had fun with it.”
In fact, Phillips was so focused on her fundamentals that she didn’t realize that her performance helped West Virginia capture the smallbore discipline until late Friday night.
“I didn’t actually know that we won the smallbore title until we got back to the hotel and had a team meeting,” admitted Phillips. “We were just trying not to focus on the score, and we were just focusing on our performance.”
On Saturday, the eight teams re-convened at Ohio State’s French Field House for the air rifle portion of the championship. The smallbore and air rifle scores would be combined to determine the NCAA champion. Taking its slim two-point lead over TCU from the smallbore into Saturday, West Virginia had its sights set on the trophy, but the competition got even more heated. Phillips and junior shooter Elizabeth Gratz each shot 597s (their highest scores of the year) in the first relay, but the Horned Frogs drew even closer and cut the deficit to a single point.
Entering the second relay, it was up to sophomore Ginny Thrasher and freshman Milica Babic to make sure the Mountaineers’ held their advantage, which at that point stood at 4,119 to 4,118.
While Thrasher, who has won an Olympic gold medal in the air rifle discipline, shot a 595 in her relay, it was Babic who came through in the biggest moment of the tournament. The freshman from Serbia shot a field-leading 598 to cement yet another national championship for West Virginia.
When she was asked how she was able to keep cool under the enormous pressure riding on her performance, she echoed the sentiments of Phillips when discussing her mindset.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even look at the scores,” said Babic, who is an engineering major “For me, it’s just about every shot and being present. Every shot matters and I just tried to go through one by one and at the end I just let everything come to me.”
Thrasher and Babic outscored TCU’s last two shooters by 16 in the second relay and pushed the Mountaineers’ final tally out to 4,723. The Horned Frogs were second with a score of 4,706, while Murray State (4,692), Kentucky (4,682), Alaska Fairbanks (4,676), Nebraska (4,676), Ohio State (4,670) and Air Force (4,653) rounded out the top eight.
Shortly after Thrasher finished shooting, WVU head coach Jon Hammond met with his team and exchanged hugs to celebrate the program’s 19th overall NCAA title. Only 12 other Division I athletic programs have won more NCAA crowns than West Virginia has in rifle. Oklahoma State’s 34 NCAA wrestling championships top the chart. WVU also earned three NRA national rifle championships prior to the NCAA began competition in the sport in 1980, so in reality, the Mountaineers now have 22 national rifle titles to their name.
“I still get emotional,” said Hammond after Saturday’s championship was clinched. “It’s a great win. I’m really pleased with the team and all of the hard work they have put in. It never gets old because it’s always a new team. The year is always really long and you always go through things and different ups and downs. This group was obviously a really young group and there was a lot to work on. So I’m really pleased for them and the awards they get at the end of it.
“We had a really great team meeting (on Friday night),” noted Hammond, who holds a record of 114-14 in his 11 seasons as a head coach of his alma mater. “To their credit, they stayed very focused and stayed away from distractions. While four of them had never competed for national championships before, now they have. They got that first day out of the way. They got the first day under their belt, and they were able to say, ‘OK, I know what this is about and how it feels and I can go out and compete.’ They did an amazing job of doing that.”
While West Virginia’s shooters were elated following the performance, the drama wasn’t quite finished. Four Mountaineers had qualified for the individual air rifle title and each shooter wanted to make sure that West Virginia swept the championships. The final event of the tournament again came down to WVU’s freshmen sensations – Phillips and Babic. The two battled back and forth and even shot perfect 10.9s on their second to last shots. But in the end, it was Babic who prevailed against her roommate and brought home first place in the individual air rifle competition.
“I tried to block everything out,” explained Babic. “As you know the crowd is cheering all of the time, they’re really loud and we really like their support. I have to say that feeling their emotion helps me a little bit and gets me pumped.”
The Belgrade, Serbia, native shot a 208.1 in the finals and capped off an excellent showing for the Mountaineers as West Virginia won the overall team national championship, team national championships in smallbore and air rifle, and individual first and second place performances in the two disciplines as well. Phillips was named the tournament’s most valuable shooter after bringing home first place in smallbore and second in air rifle. She just missed becoming just the second freshman ever to win capture the national championships in both the smallbore and air rifle, following in the footsteps of Thrasher, who accomplished the feat last year.
The gold medalist in the air rifle at the Olympics in Rio this past summer, Thasher took a bit of a backseat to her younger teammates in Columbus. The sophomore from Springfield, Va., didn’t repeat her duel 2016 NCAA individual championships, but she still finished second in the smallbore (484, five points behind Phillips) and seventh in the air rifle (595), a few points behind Babic (598) and Phillips (597), who went one and two. Gratz, who is a junior from Sigel, Ill., came in fifth in the air rifle (597).
So how is it that two freshmen led a relatively inexperienced group of Mountaineers to another national championship? According to Hammond, his group simply filters out the outside distractions and focuses on the task at hand. To do it year after year (for five straight years) is simply remarkable.
“We set our own standards,” said the native of Aberdeen, Scotland, who earned a master’s degree from WVU in 2003. “We want to compete and do our best all of the time. We try not to think about that stuff. You can’t let yourself think about pressure or expectations and the stuff from the outside so we keep things very tight within our group. I stress to them that it’s a new team every year. It doesn’t matter if we have won one, five or 100 championships. We’re trying to do something as a team for the first time so we try to stick to that. It’s something that you can’t allow yourself to get focused on. You have to focus on your team and your group.”
Jean-Pierre Lucas is the only senior on WVU’s eight-person roster, so an inexperienced group will turn into a veteran group next year. Don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers bring home No. 20 in 2018.