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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia University rifle coach Jon Hammond makes sure to put extra emphasis the third time he repeats his favorite phrase:
“We want to take care of our own business and shoot our best match,” he said of the No. 2- ranked Mountaineers’ chances at the 2012 NCAA Championships. “After that, you never know.”
The sixth-year coach knows what he is talking about. One just needs to recall three seasons ago, when the Mountaineers overcame a sixth-place smallbore finish and stormed back to win their nation-best 14th national title with a first place, 2353 air rifle showing.
As the three-time defending Great American Rifle Conference (GARC) champion Mountaineers prepare to shoot for their 15th title at this weekend’s national championships, held March 9-10, at Ohio State’s Converse Hall and French Field House, in Columbus, Ohio, relying on past experience will be a mixed bag, as only one of the three upperclassmen on the squad’s counting team – senior Michael Kulbacki – was a part of that national-title squad.
While Hammond believes Kulbacki’s in-match experience may come in to play if the Mountaineers again fall victim to an early deficit, he cautions that the squad will not spend much time dwelling on the past.
“It’s something that may come up, depending on the situations, but it’s almost something that we want to stay away from,” he explained. “Mike has valuable experience and knows how we approached that day and how it worked for us. It is definitely something to think about, but like we always say, this weekend is a brand new match with new possibilities.”
Kulbacki is just one-fifth of the Mountaineer squad shooting for the title this weekend. In addition to his past experience, WVU also will depend on the leadership of senior Justin Pentz and junior Petra Zublasing. Both members of the Mountaineer team that finished three shots short of the 2011 title, Pentz and Zublasing, the 2012 GARC Shooter of the Year, have paced the team all season, sporting 1183.2 and 1164.9 aggregate score averages, respectively.
Zublasing has been the cornerstone of the Mountaineers’ success this season. The 2011 air rifle national runner-up secured the GARC air rifle and aggregate score titles two weeks ago and enters this weekend’s championships as one of the favorites in both guns.
Hammond believes the adversity the Appiano, Italy, native faced at the conference championships, specifically during a low-scoring smallbore relay, should help her this weekend.
“I didn’t find out anything about her that I didn’t already know, but she definitely handled the situation well,” he said. “She was very patient in her match, and she didn’t panic at all. She obviously wasn’t happy with the way she shot smallbore, but she was fighting and shooting the best that she could. She stayed in control, and that’s a big credit to her and the things that we have worked on.”
While Zublasing recovered for a third-place finish, it was her performance the next day and her first-place, 598 air rifle relay mark that impressed her coach and exemplified everything the Mountaineers have worked to achieve this season.
“The second day was a new day,” Hammond recounted. “She put her smallbore behind her and entered the range very determined. Petra put her mind to it and was determined to shoot a good score. That’s just a credit to her personality and her determination.
“That’s been our approach this year – improve as shooters in the way we shoot, our demeanor and our overall professionalism. It showed at GARC, and it has shown throughout the whole season.”
Freshmen Thomas Kyanko and Taylor Ciotola round out the Mountaineers’ squad this weekend. Kyanko was recently named the GARC Rookie of the Year, while Ciotola finished eighth in smallbore and air rifle and third overall at the conference championships.
“Taylor is peaking at the right time,” said Hammond. “He’s learned a lot and really progressed this year. He’s become mentally stronger – he understands the mental part of the game a lot more now. That’s really been the changing aspect that has given him the confidence to believe that he is a good shooter.”
Hammond believes the Mountaineers have been feeding off of Ciotola’s energy this postseason.
“Taylor is hungry and motivated; I think we all are,” he explained. “We want to show everyone what we are capable of shooting, and that we can compete with the top teams. We just have to keep that motivation and hunger throughout the weekend.”
The Mountaineers are expected to face the stiffest competition from No. 1 TCU and No. 3 Kentucky. The only two squads to defeat WVU (12-2, 5-1 GARC) this season, the Horned Frogs, the 2010 national champions, have held the nation’s top ranking for the better part of two months, while the Wildcats, the reigning NCAA champions, fell to WVU at the GARC Championships, 4681-4675.
“Those teams are incredibly talented,” Hammond said. “They’re probably going to be favored against us. We just have to go out and do our best; we don’t know how they will approach the weekend. We have to leave it all out there. We don’t know where we’ll stack up against them. Rifle is a sport where the final point swings can be a lot. You just never know.”
TCU and UK have both shot 4700-plus marks this season; the Mountaineers shot a season-best 4693 on Oct. 22.
The Wildcats won last year’s title with a 4700 score. Hammond debates whether that is the magic score for this year’s championships, too.
“That’s a pretty high number,” he laughed. “If someone can shoot that, they will be in a very good position, for sure. Statistically, we have a chance. We are definitely capable of it. Our shooters are talented enough. It’s not something we talk about, but if everyone were to shoot well, we could do it.
“We know TCU and UK are capable of that score. They may have a bit more confidence over how they will perform. Then again, maybe there’s a bit more pressure for them to hit that score, and we can benefit from that.”
Determined to let the shots speak for themselves, Hammond has not given much thought to that elusive 15th title. He does admit that winning another championship, after three straight top three finishes and with a team that is equal parts experienced and wide-eyed, would be an “awesome” experience.
“I will be more proud of them for just competing well and doing what we’ve done all year,” he said of the possibility. “They need to be professional, work hard and stick to our goals. We can’t control if another team goes off and has a great day. There’s nothing we can do about that. If it comes to fruition, that would be fantastic, but I choose to reserve comment on it until after we win that title.”