Shooting for a Repeat

  • March 10, 2010 07:01 PM
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by Shannon McNamara for MSNsportsNET.com
March 10, 2010

Championship Central

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The West Virginia University rifle team readily admits it made last year’s improbable run to its nation-best 14th national title difficult.

  At 11-0, the Mountaineers have proven this season that they learned from last year's championships and are ready to bring another trophy back to Morgantown.
WVU Staff photo

The Mountaineers entered the two-day championships as the No. 3 seed, but a dismal smallbore performance plummeted WVU to an unimaginable sixth place through one day of competition. An inspired air rifle lineup, coupled with a “what will be, will be” attitude pushed the Mountaineers to the front of the pack at the conclusion of day two, and after a frenzied, confusing and educational 48 hours, WVU stood on top of the podium in Fort Worth, Texas, hoisting its first NCAA trophy since last winning in 1998.

“I think we are heading into this weekend with more experience than last year,” said fourth-year coach Jon Hammond. “They all have been there before. Everyone has worked hard this year, and they are all better shooters now than they were last season.

“With that, their expectations are higher, but also they are more prepared this year to deal with pressure situations. Their maturity level is much better, and that bodes well for us having a successful weekend.”

One year after that enlightening championship experience, the No. 1-ranked Mountaineers return to Fort Worth this weekend with their sights set on a smoother repeat performance. Boasting a lineup which features six National Rifle Association (NRA) All-Americans, and brimming with confidence following a perfect 11-0 season, including a first-place finish at the 2010 Great American Rifle Conference (GARC) Championships, WVU appears poised to secure its first back-to-back title since winning four-straight championships from 1995-98.

“It’s exciting. I know the team is ready for the championships,” Hammond, the 2010 GARC Coach of the Year, explained. “We’ve had a good week of practice, and now it’s just a case of going to Texas, doing our best and getting the job done. We will keep things as normal as possible. This is just another match for us.”

Leading the way is fifth-year senior Bryant Wallizer. The Little Orleans, Md., native has been nothing short of the pillar on which the Mountaineers have leaned on during their rebuilding stage these last three seasons. Though this weekend’s tournament concludes his brief two-year WVU career, Hammond says Wallizer’s leadership and constant desire to improve parallels the Mountaineers’ recent success.

“Bryant has meant so much to this program,” said Hammond. “He came in with my first recruiting class (in 2007), and I believe that that year was the beginning of the change within this program. He has been the team leader this year. He leads from the front, with his work ethic and expectations. He has been a huge part of the team these last three years, and I’m hoping he can have one last strong match for us.”

Wallizer, a 2009 NRA first team air rifle All-American, paces the air rifle lineup this weekend with a team-best 589.92 season average. Though he has fallen short of his personal-best 595 score this year, Wallizer, a transfer from Murray State, has evolved into one of the most-consistent Mountaineer shooters. His smallbore skill has eclipsed his past achievements, as proven by his personal-best 586 score, and the all-GARC air rifle and combined score first team honoree looks to surpass his second-place air rifle showing (691 final score) from one year ago.

“Bryant was really close last year to taking an individual title,” said Hammond. “Hopefully everyone is going into this weekend with the goal of winning another team title, but I also think each of our shooters has a chance to win an individual title as well.”

Joining Wallizer on the air gun team and pushing him for the individual title are junior Andy Lamson and sophomore Michael Kulbacki.

Lamson, a Colchester, Vt., native, finished just behind Wallizer at last year’s air rifle championship in third place with a 689.7 final score. The NRA first team air rifle All-American shot a personal-best 594 on Oct. 17, and most recently shot 591 in WVU’s NCAA qualifying match on Feb. 13. Lamson’s talents don’t end with air gun, as he leads the Mountaineers with a season-best 1166.67 combined score average.

  Sophomore Michael Kulbacki hopes to have the same success he enjoyed at the 2009 NCAA Championships.
WVU Staff photo

Kulbacki returns to the national championships after a strong second season at WVU in which he improved his consistency in air gun. The NRA second team air rifle All-American played an integral role in the Mountaineers’ championships comeback last season and finished sixth overall with a 686.9 final score. Armed with a 588.58 air rifle season average, the team’s second-best mark, the DuBois, Pa., native should again factor into WVU’s success this weekend.

Junior Tommy Santelli rounds out the Mountaineers’ air rifle lineup. A 2009 NRA second team air rile All-American, Santelli improved his scores as this year progressed, shooting a season-high 590 against Ole Miss on Jan. 30. The Prosperity, Pa., native also shot at last year’s championships and finished fifth overall in air gun with a final score of 687.5. Santelli has shot well in both guns this season and is coming off a second-place smallbore showing (680.2 final score) at the GARC Championships.

Santelli, Lamson and Wallizer will join Brandi Eskew in the smallbore lineup. Eskew, a two-time NRA first team smallbore All-American, returns to the championships after a one-year absence. The Petersburg, W.Va., native has enjoyed a successful junior campaign and paces the Mountaineers with a 578.75 smallbore average. Eskew has shot especially well as of late, scoring a personal-best 588 in the Mountaineers’ NCAA qualifying match on Feb. 13.

Sophomore Justin Pentz joins the Mountaineers this weekend after individually qualifying for the smallbore competition. The DuBois, Pa., native and NRA second team smallbore All-American enters his first national championships with a 576.5 smallbore average. He has also shot well late this season, including a personal-best 586 showing on Feb. 13.

“Justin’s individual qualification shows the progress he has made as a sophomore and I’m delighted that he gets this opportunity to compete,” said Hammond.

The Mountaineers will be without the service of GARC air rifle, smallbore and combined score champion Nicco Campriani. The junior transfer from Florence, Italy, is currently in Norway defending his air rifle title at the 2010 European Championships.

“Obviously, Nicco would have affected the lineups this weekend, but we enter the tournament with the same counting lineup we had at the GARC Championships,” explained Hammond.

WVU enters this weekend’s competition after putting together a stellar defense of its national title. Following a perfect season-opening four-match road trip in October, the Mountaineers breezed past their stiffest GARC competition, defeating Army, the 2005 national champions, 4638-4562, on Nov. 14, and Kentucky, the defending GARC champions and the only squad to defeat WVU last season, 4691-4642, on Nov. 21. At the time, the team’s wining score was believed to be the best collegiate mark achieved since the 60-shot course was implemented at the onset of the 2004-05 season.

The Mountaineers avoided complacency and continued to improve in January, and with the addition Campriani, forced to sit out the year’s first six matches due to transfer rules, the team came within three shots of the much-desired 4700 score with a 4697-4670 victory over then-No. 1 Alaska-Fairbanks on Jan. 21. The win, the squad’s second over the Nanooks in two years, indicated a changing of the guard in the collegiate rifle ranks, as UAF had not only dominated the Mountaineers in years past, but also had won nine of the last 10 NCAA Championships prior to 2009.

Filled with confidence, the Mountaineers closed out their season with a first-place finish at the Winthrow Invitational and victories over Ole Miss, Nebraska and Memphis. At 11-0, WVU not only earned the GARC regular-season title, but also finished first at the conference championships on Feb. 21 with a 4653 combined score. The Mountaineers won the smallbore title (2317) and finished third in air rifle (2336); the discipline loss was the team’s first of the season.

“The team has had three weeks to prepare since the GARC Championships, and I think they’re rested, refreshed and ready to go,” Hammond said.

Last year’s NCAA win signaled the Mountaineers’ return to prominence on the national stage. WVU was already the nation’s most-decorated team, having won 13 championships since its inaugural victory in 1983. Though the team’s 2009 comeback was previously inconceivable, it typified the direction the program has taken during Hammond’s four-year coaching career. In just his second season as the Mountaineer coach, he led the team to a sixth-place finish at the 2008 championships, WVU’s first invitation to the national tournament since 2002. He then trumped that showing with last year’s victory, and says that a repeat performance this weekend would be fantastic.

“I think there are a lot more expectations on us this year,” he explained. “It’s one thing to win the way we did last year, but it’s a completely different honor to repeat as champions, especially with elevated expectations and pressure. A win would show our dominance this year, but we have to push expectations out of our mind and focus on the same goals we focus on each match.”

The 2010 NCAA rifle championships opens Friday, March 12, with the smallbore competition at the TCU Rifle Range. The tournament will conclude Saturday with the air rifle competition at the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.