The rifle team is WVU’s most successful program, despite fights to keep it alive over the years.
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.
Among those shooters, Petra Zublasing is one of the best. A junior civil engineering student at WVU, the Italy native has practiced competitive shooting since she was young. “I can remember on my 12th birthday, I was hanging out with a lot of boys. They had Airsoft pistols and we made it a game to see who could hit this pole from my balcony. After that I remember begging my dad to take me to the shooting range. Finally he agreed and I’ve been shooting ever since.”
Zublasing competed in her first competition when she was 13 and won an Italian national championship when she was 15. Since then, she has shot competitively in Germany, China, and the United States. She helped her WVU rifle team win second place at the NCAA Championships and recently earned an Olympic quota for the Italian team for the 2012 Olympics held in London.
Earning an Olympic quota was no small feat. To do so, a shooter must finish top two in a World Cup. If a shooter earns an Olympic quota, she can still compete at another World Cup, but the Olympic quota goes to the next highest-scoring person. This was the case for Zublasing, who was accompanied by her Italian teammates. “I was so nervous before finding out. I didn’t shoot very well earlier and I was running out of time to make my final shots,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘I need to do this. I need to win.’ When I finally looked at the scoreboard I saw that I was third. People were running up to me smiling and hugging me. It was a great feeling.”
During a competition, shooters test their speed and accuracy against their opponents. The shooters try to hit as close to the bullseye as they can, earning more points the closer they hit. The targets are shot from three different positions, prone (lying down), kneeling, and standing.
Competitive shooting is mostly mental, Zublasing says, and it can be an obstacle to even the best shooters. Her way of calming herself down is to count to eight in her head. If she has not calmed down, she starts back at one. On the odd numbers she breathes in and on the even numbers she breathes out. She also listens to music before a match to get in the right mindset. “Sometimes at the end of the season I just want to relax and listen to more classical music, stuff with piano. In the middle of the season, when I’m busier, I feel more tired and I want to listen to something that can really get into my blood, like house music.”
Zublasing has a long road ahead of her, but she is not alone on her journey to the Olympics. She follows in the footsteps of other WVU athletes—including her own coach, who came to WVU to work on his Master’s degree from 2002 to 2004 before competing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing for England. “I came over here looking to shoot on a more consistent basis, and that’s what college sports allow you to do over here,” Hammond says.
The coach has no doubt that Zublasing could do well and make it to the Olympics—the most important thing is mental preparation. He says it’s difficult to make the same, perfect shot again and again. Training, practice, and using the team psychologist and coaches can help Zublasing reach the Olympics and do well. “You can be told everything to expect, you can plan for it, and you can train for it, but it’s such a huge event. The best advice I can give is to just enjoy the experience.”
But Zublasing comes from a good place, training at WVU. Hammond says just being in Morgantown helped him. “Starting the coaching job here in 2006 really prepared me as well. I was working with the athletes on a daily basis and I really began to learn more things as an athlete by coaching them,” he says. “I also had the access and resources to train in this really great environment.”
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