MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – In a normal season, West Virginia’s rifle team would be knee deep into its 2020-21 campaign.
Of course, as all know, little in life has been normal in the past 10 months because of the global pandemic, and that includes college rifle programs.
Though the Mountaineers were actually already on site in Lexington, Kentucky, last spring, ready to compete in the NCAA Championships last March, that event was abruptly cancelled hours before it was to begin because of COVID-19.
Jon Hammond’s WVU squad hasn’t participated in a true rifle competition since then. Its last road match took place in Memphis on Feb. 29, 2020, when it finished second to Kentucky at the Great American Rifle Conference (GARC) championships.
That long wait is about over, though, as West Virginia heads to Akron Saturday for its first match of the 2020-21 season … well, make that just the 2021 season.
Normally WVU’s rifle season begins in mid-October and from there it stretches to the NCAA championships in mid-March.
Some college programs followed their usual schedule, as did Kentucky, which already has competed in – and won – six matches since beginning on Oct. 10.
West Virginia’s athletic department administration decided to hold off the start of the Mountaineers’ rifle season until January, though.
“It was a school decision,” explained Hammond, who is in his 15th season as WVU’s head coach. “A handful of other schools are in the same boat.”
That doesn’t mean WVU didn’t have some competition in the fall, even if it was virtual with both teams shooting from their home sites and comparing scores through Internet hookups.
“Our team the other day was saying, ‘Well, now we’re going to shoot real matches’,” chuckled Hammond. “When you are doing (the virtual events), they just don’t feel like real matches. We tried to create as much of a match environment as we could, but I think it can feel like just another day of practice. At least, we’re a sport that has the ability to do (virtual events). Obviously you can’t do that for soccer or basketball or things like that. So, it was neat that we could do that. And there are things you can learn from doing that. There’s the time limit, the whole prematch routine, things like that.
“The scores (in the fall’s virtual matches) also count in terms of our conference rankings for our regular season and also our all-conference awards. So there was something on the line. It wasn’t just doing a practice match. But it also wasn’t the same as another team being there. It was different.”
The different returns to normal for WVU starting Saturday at Akron. That will be one of six matches for the Mountaineers in the month of January. They also are slated to travel to Kentucky on Feb. 13, and will likely squeeze in a trip to Ohio State as well, though that match against the Buckeyes hasn’t officially been announced yet. Hammond wants to shoot in Columbus, because it will also be – if the virus cooperates – the host city for the NCAA Championships this year, which are on the docket for March 12-13.
“We’re looking at eight or nine weeks until hopefully the NCAA Championships,” said Hammond. “It’s a strange feeling to be that close but just now starting, but we’re excited to get the season going.”
The owners of 19 NCAA rifle championships, West Virginia enters the spring portion of the season ranked No. 1 by the College Rifle Coaches Association (CRCA). Kentucky is ranked No. 2 this week, followed by Ole Miss at No. 3. TCU ranks No. 4, and Alaska sits at No. 5. Air Force and Memphis are tied at No. 6. Murray State is No. 8. Army and Akron round out the top 10 respectively.
“We always have tough expectations,” admitted Hammond, who has coached WVU to six NCAA titles since taking over the program in 2006.
The Mountaineers have lost four key individuals from last year’s team, which was 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country prior to the cancellation of the NCAA Championship. Among those who have graduated are All-Americans Mililca Babic, David Koenders and Morgan Phillips, as well as Noah Barker.
WVU is going to lean heavily this year on 2020 GARC combined runner-up Sarah Osborn, a senior, and junior Jared Eddy. Both were named second-team All-Americans last spring. Sophomore Malori Brown, who also earned second-team All-American notice in the smallbore last year, will be a key this season as well.
After that trio, Hammond will be depending on a young roster that features four freshmen and three sophomores among its 10 members.
“This team is good. We’re excited about this team,” stated Hammond of this year’s Mountaineers. “The one thing that strikes me already is that we have really good depth, possibly more depth than we’ve had in quite a long time. So, I have no idea who our counting five athletes will be at the end of the season, and that’s great.
“All 10 have the potential to be All-Americans, and each was shooting very well in one or both guns (air rifle and small bore) last fall. It’s going to be exciting to see how they evolve.
“Who knows what the ceiling will be. As always, our expectations are very high.”