The rifle team is WVU’s most successful program, despite fights to keep it alive over the years.
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Under the bright fluorescent lights of the WVU Natatorium rifle range, 10 students inspect their rifles. The WVU rifle team head coach, Jon Hammond, walks onto the range, and all noise, except for the low humming of the lights, stops. The team members quit what they’re doing and place their rifles off to the side, waiting for the coach to speak. Practice is about to start.
The rifle team is one of the only teams at WVU to win a NCAA tournament, something the beloved football and basketball programs have not been able to do. Of their 25 appearances at the NCAA, they have won 14 times. The team has produced 65 NCAA All-Americans, 20 national individual champions, and 13 Olympians—including the current coach.
The rifle team has been at WVU since 1951, but financial constraints caused the school to drop their most successful program in 2003. “When the team was first dropped, they had to become a club team. Some students transferred to other schools and some students just weren’t able to shoot. We shot a little bit as a club team, but it just wasn’t the same without the structure of being a NCAA sanctioned team. It was a big challenge for the kids who decided to stay,” Hammond says. As a club, the team was unable to give the scholarships that enticed top shooters to come to WVU. Being a club also limited competition to much closer to WVU because of transportation costs.
Public support for the rifle team was tremendous. E-mails and phone calls were made to the athletics department and the legislature. The team had statewide and nationwide support. In 2004, thanks in large part to the fans, the rifle team came back. “It was quite a fight here,” Hammond says. “The support and outcry from people throughout the state really helped the rifle team get reinstated. People felt strongly.”
Now the rifle team sees a lot more support from the WVU community. Operating and scholarship funding comes from athletic department funds and private giving, according to Mike Parsons, deputy director of athletics. Parsons says the state legislature also designates $100,000 per year in its budget for the team. While this amount is not as much as the basketball or football programs receive, it is a significant amount that helps the team continue to be one of the best in the nation. The rifle team may not get as much attention as the football or basketball programs, but Hammond says that’s the nature of college athletics across the nation. “I don’t spend too much time thinking or worrying about it. My job is to coach the team and to make us as successful as possible. We know football and basketball basically run athletic departments and we’re dependent on them. We’re appreciative of the publicity we do get.”
Rebuilding the team after being reinstated was a difficult task, as only five members from the club remained. “Recruiting was a little bit harder. The core of the team had left so we had to wait a while to get top recruits again. The history and tradition of the team here carried a lot of weight, so that helped to bring people back,” Hammond says. Since taking over as head coach in 2006, Hammond has added to the tradition, bringing in top shooters to compete for WVU.
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