2011-12 Rifle Season Preview

  • By Shannon McNamara
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  • October 11, 2011 03:29 PM
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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - The 2011-12 West Virginia University rifle team certainly looks different. Gone are the seven seniors that restored the program’s glory and led the squad to its nation-best 14th national championship in 2009. Combined, this class – coach Jon Hammond’s first WVU recruits – earned 23 National Rifle Association (NRA) All-America honors and set or matched every school record.

Yet, this upcoming season is not about what the Mountaineers lost. Instead, it is about the intangibles that still epitomize WVU rifle – heart, dedication and the insatiable desire for a national championship.

“That class was a fantastic group of athletes that worked hard for everything they accomplished, and they set a good example for this year’s team and the teams that will follow,” Hammond explained. “This year is a case of moving on, finding new talent and replacing that class with student-athletes that want to continue our tradition of success.

“Any newcomer that joins this team knows the standard that is expected. We always expect to contend for the conference title, to be ranked in the top three and to challenge for a national championship at the end of the season.”

The Mountaineers return to the range following a 2010-11 season that saw them reach the brink of their second national championship in three years. Though the two-time Great American Rifle Conference (GARC) champions narrowly fell by three shots to Kentucky (4700-4697), Hammond believes the determination and resolve the team displayed over the two-day match will serve as a great example for this year’s squad.

“Our goal this year is to do the best we can,” Hammond said. “We don’t necessarily have the talent or the experience we had last year, but I think we can make that up with motivation, work-ethic and the overall freshness surrounding the team. Our goal is to maximize our potential and to take the best of what we have.”

Leading the charge this season for the Mountaineers are seniors Michael Kulbacki and Justin Pentz. Freshmen when WVU brought the national championship trophy back to Morgantown, the duo has each shot in two national-title matches and have an abundance of pressure-match experience.

“You have to rely on the leadership that remains, and that includes Mike and Justin,” Hammond explained. “We need to rely on the leadership in place to impress upon the new Mountaineers how this team works and what we expect from them regarding work ethic, training and contributing to the overall dynamic of the team.”

Pentz returns after his strongest season yet at WVU. A steady shooter with both guns, the DuBois, Pa., native not only counted toward the Mountaineers’ score at the NCAA Championships, but he also shot in his first final on the big stage and finished fifth overall in air rifle; he ended the season with honorable mention NRA All-America air rifle honors. Coupled with his ninth-place combined score finish at the conference championships, Pentz, a four-time All-American, proved that he can be depended on for two solid scores each match this year. He enters his final season having shot personal-best air rifle and smallbore scores of 595 and 588, respectively, last year.

Kulbacki returns as one of the nation’s top air rifle shooters. Also a native of DuBois, the three-time NRA All-American, and 2010 first team air rifle honoree, shot at the national championships his first two seasons and placed sixth overall at the 2009 match en route to helping WVU secure its NCAA title. Though his averages were down last season, Kulbacki still strung together several memorable matches, including a first place overall finish at NC State (1171), which included a second-place smallbore finish (580), highlighted by a school-record 200 prone score, and a season-best 591 air rifle score, good enough for second place.

Junior Petra Zublasing joins Pentz and Kulbacki as a returning All-American. One of the strongest international shooters of the moment, the Appiano, Italy, native looks to have a huge impact on the team’s success in just her second season as a Mountaineer. She ranked behind former teammate Nicco Campriani in every season-average category one year ago and is expected to be the team’s top shooter this season.

As a transfer, Zublasing was only eligible for the Mountaineers’ final seven matches last season, but she made them count, as she registered personal-best scores of 597 air rifle, 588 smallbore and 1184 combined score. Zublasing was particularly strong toward the end of the season, as she finished behind Campriani and placed second overall in air rifle at the national championships. She preceded that performance with a second-place overall finish at the GARC Championships, as well as a second place air rifle showing and a fourth place smallbore finish.

Following her quick success at WVU, Zublasing returned to the international circuit and collected a slew of major wins, including a Bronze medal in the women’s 10m air rifle at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) Fort Benning World Cup; the finish also earned her an Olympic quota for the 2012 London Summer Games.

Redshirt freshman Thomas Kyanko is the fourth returning Mountaineer. Though the Wellsburg, W.Va., native sat out the 2010-11 season, he gained invaluable experience practicing with the team in the WVU Rifle Range. Kyanko also saw success at the 2011 USA Shooting National Championships over the summer, as he won the junior men’s 50m 3 position, finished third in the junior men’s 10m air rifle and placed ninth in the junior men’s 50m rifle prone. Additionally, he also placed third and 14th in the men’s 50m 3 position and the men’s 10m air rifle, respectively. Kyanko is expected to push for a counting spot on this year’s roster.

Six join the Mountaineers this season, including four freshmen and a redshirt sophomore transfer, and all are expected to contribute in some capacity.

Transfer Daniel Sojka arrives at WVU after shooting at Murray State during the 2009-10 season. A member of the Ohio Valley Conference championship team, Sojka, a native of Cracow, Poland, was a valuable part of the Racers’ run in the 2010 NCAA Championships, as he counted toward the team’s third place air rifle finish. He ended his only season at Murray State with all-conference air rifle second team honors and was named to the all-conference smallbore and air rifle newcomer teams.

“I expect Daniel to help our air rifle scores this season,” Hammond says. “While he lacks experience in smallbore, I believe he has the potential to improve in the discipline.”

Freshmen Meelis Kiisk and Amy Bock both bring international shooting experience with them to WVU.

Kiisk, a native of Paide, Estonia, is a member of the Estonian National Team and is a frequent competitor on the ISSF World Cup circuit. Named the 2009 Best Youth Shooter by the Estonian Shooting Sport Federation, he also is a three-time Estonian air rifle champion and won the 2007 Gold medal at the Estonian Air Rifle Championships.

Bock, an East Brunswick, N.J., native, is a member of the Puerto Rico National Team and also shoots on the ISSF circuit. She won the women’s 50m rifle 3 position Gold medal while shooting with the national team in Guatemala in 2011. Additionally, Bock is a multiple Junior Olympics qualifier with several championships to her name, including the 2011 New Jersey Junior Olympics state smallbore title.

Rookies Taylor Ciotola and Matthew Martin round out the Mountaineer freshman class.

Ciotola, a three-time state 3 position air rifle champion (2005-07), out of Pasadena, Md., also won the intermediate junior air rifle championships at the 2009 Junior Olympics. His smallbore skills outrank his talent in air rifle, though he should make quick improvements in the discipline.

Martin, a member of the US National Development Team, hails from Eagle River, Alaska. A multiple national Junior Olympics qualifier, Martin won the 2010 Junior Olympics 3 position air rifle championships. Locally, he also won the smallbore and air rifle titles at the 2011 Alaska Junior Olympics State Championships.

Junior Chance Cover also joins the Mountaineers after shooting for the WVU Rifle Club the last two years.

WVU’s 2011-12 schedule features five teams from the 2011 national championships, all former NCAA champions, including 2011 champion and GARC foe Kentucky. Including UK, WVU will face five of the seven programs that have won a national title since 1980; Alaska-Fairbanks, Murray State, Army and TCU.

After opening the season on the road Oct. 15-16 against Air Force and GARC foe Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., the Mountaineers will welcome Army to the WVU Rifle Range on Oct. 22. WVU will not travel again in the fall, as the team also will play host to Memphis, Murray State and Old Miss.

WVU returns from winter break and plays host to Akron on Jan. 14 before welcoming Alaska-Fairbanks on Jan. 20. WVU has won its last three shoulder-to-shoulder matches against the Nanooks and is one win short from tying the all-time series record.

WVU closes out its road schedule with matches at Ohio State on Jan. 22 and at TCU, the 2010 NCAA champion, on Jan. 28.

WVU’s Feb. 3 match against UK is one of its most anticipated of the season. The Wildcats earned a 2-1 edge over the Mountaineers last season, as they trumped WVU in the regular-season shoulder-to-shoulder match in Lexington, and at the NCAA Championships; WVU scored a victory over UK en route to the GARC title. The Mountaineers own a 14-7 regular-season advantage.

WVU closes out its regular season with a home match against NC State on Feb. 5 before facing an unannounced opponent in an NCAA qualifying match on Feb. 18.

The Mountaineers seek to defend their GARC title at the conference championships on Feb. 25-26, in Oxford, Miss. The 2012 NCAA Championships is scheduled for March 9-10, in Columbus, Ohio.

Though the Mountaineers face a daunting schedule and must lean on newcomers for support this season, Hammond believes the returning talent and the program’s restored pride should help WVU in its quest for another national championship.

“Our goal is to qualify for the NCAA Championships this year,” he says. “Hopefully, throughout the season, we will get to a level where we’re competitive and we know that we’re going into the national championships with a chance to do really well. Hopefully, we’re prepared to do that.

“We may go unbeaten throughout the year, or we may lose two or three matches. We don’t know. Hopefully, we do the best that we can and see where we end up. It’s going to be an interesting year to watch the transition of this team and to witness the newcomers’ progression.”