|Coach Jon Hammond
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The 2012-13 Mountaineers opened their year strong, shooting a then-school record 4709 score in a win at Army (4631) on Oct. 7, 2012. Included in the day was a school-record 2348 smallbore mark. Stronger scores followed, as WVU bested its record with a 4717 showing on Oct. 16 in a win over Memphis (4634), before shooting an NCAA-record 4720 in a win over Mississippi (4624) on Nov. 9
What followed WVU’s record-setting fall semester was a solid showing in the spring, including an NCAA-record 2381 air rifle total at its NCAA Qualifier, en route to the team’s nation-best 15th NCAA Championship in March.
The Mountaineers’ defense of their title has not been as flashy as last year’s season-opening push, as WVU has had to work for its 2-0 record. The squad fell behind in both of its season-opening matches, losing smallbore to Ohio State (2305-2301) and at Nebraska (2315-2307). The Mountaineers’ strong air rifle scores have helped them overcome the deficits and maintain their perfect record.
“We’re not really looking at the scores right now; we’re confident that we’re working on what we need to work on,” coach Hammond explained. “It may be a slower start to the season than last year, but it’s always a challenge the season after winning a championship. You have to hit the reset button and start again.”
This season isn’t Hammond’s first experience leading a national champion team, as the Mountaineers won the 2009 NCAA title in the coach’s third year at his alma mater. He sees many similarities between the start of the 2009-10 campaign and this year.
“I think it was a challenge for us in 2009, too,” he stated. “Also, in my own experience, it’s always very hard to come back and do it again. We just have to do things our way – that’s what works best. We need to get the best performances that we can and not worry about what other teams are doing. We’re not checking the rankings every week; we’re just worrying about what we need to work on to keep improving.”
Hammond believes the Mountaineers’ biggest challenge isn’t defending their title – it’s replacing three-time NCAA champion and 2012 Olympian Petra Zublasing.
“We definitely had a great team (last year), and I think the whole atmosphere was good,” Hammond explained. “We had a good mixture of experience and youth, and we had one of the best shooters in college in Petra. I think we’re seeing now the effect that Petra had, not only with her scores but also the overall effect she had on the team. Without her now, the team has to find its own identity this year.
“It’s a new year, and whether the personnel has changed a little or a lot, it’s a new team and we need to find our new identity. We need to set goals that we want to achieve as a team and go about the year that way. I think we have to look back at last year as an amazing year, but we have to just move forward and think about this season now.”
The first step has already been conquered, as the Mountaineers stand at 2-0 at the end of October. Hammond says this first month of the season has been crucial to the development of this year’s team.
“You’re always learning about your team and the things that you need to improve on and work on,” he said. “I think that we’re learning that there’s always going to be a challenge – things aren’t going to come easy. This is probably going to be a really challenging year for us, and for some of them, they’re going to need to find the form they had last year.”
Fortunately for Hammond, he has all the confidence that his student-athletes are moving in the right direction, and scores similar to last year’s are within reach.
“They’re all capable of shooting really well, and I think they’re all working hard and moving in the right direction,” he said of a Mountaineer team that features six upperclassmen, including seniors Chance Cover
and Daniel Sojka
. “Our goals didn’t include shooting record scores the first semester. I think as long as we’re always taking a few positives away from each match and practice, and we’re learning along the way, then I’m confident that we’ll be prepared and ready for the end of the season. That’s the end goal – we want to continue to improve and work with the right stuff. Each match and each week of practice is just a part of the journey for us throughout the year. We’ll be ready at the end.”
The journey for the No. 5-ranked Mountaineers continues this weekend, as they return to the WVU Rifle Range after one week away from competition and welcome Great American Rifle Conference foe Army on Saturday, October 26, at 8 a.m. Though the Black Knights may keep pace with the Mountaineer shooters, Hammond believes these tight competitions will help the Mountaineers when they line up at the NCAA Championships in March.
“We’re going to have more tight matches this year,” he concluded. “I think the sport in general has become so much tighter. We’ve already seen it this year – there’s so much parity, and there are so many great shooters that graduated last season. It’s just the nature of the sport – there are good days, and there are bad days.”
The Mountaineers’ best days are certainly before them, and while it may be an uphill battle, ending the year on top of the podium at the 2014 NCAA Championships is the team’s ultimate goal, and they are focused on overcoming any challenge that stands in their way.