Gunning for 18: WV University the Team to Beat at 2016 NCAA Rifle Championships

Gunning for 18: West Virginia University the Team to Beat at 2016 NCAA Rifle Championships
Gunning for 18: West Virginia University the Team to Beat at 2016 NCAA Rifle Championships
USA Shooting
USA Shooting

Colorado Springs, CO -( It’s tough to stand apart amidst the spectacular history of the West Virginia University Rifle program, but this year’s Mountaineer squad has a very real chance.

Having already set an NCAA scoring record earlier this season, a senior-laden team heads to Akron, Ohio for the NCAA Rifle Championships primed to bring the 18th national championship trophy back to Morgantown.

Hosted by the University of Akron, the championships will be held March 11-12 at the Stile Athletics Field House on the Akron campus in Akron, Ohio.

The top eight teams in both the smallbore three-position and air rifle events were selected based on the average of the three highest regular-season aggregate scores with no more than one match at any given site. The average of the three highest scores was added to the aggregate scores from the designated qualifiers to determine the top eight teams.

Eight athletes earning USA Shooting National Championship medals in 2015 will compete along with a big mix of current and former USA Shooting Team members.

Ten of the 15 best team aggregate scores have been earned by West Virginia including the nation’s top four scores shot this season, highlighted by the NCAA-record 4740 achieved in a win against Akron on January 17 at the WVU Rifle Range.  WVU’s depth is its greatest strength as they are buoyed by four senior leaders in Michael Bamsey, Meelis Kiisk, Garrett Spurgeon (Canton, Missouri) and Patrick Sunderman (Farmington, Minnesota). Spurgeon is a prime contender for an Olympic spot as showcased by a strong Winter Airgun Championship performance that saw him win by 8.7 points.

“As a senior, I am proud to be competing in my fourth NCAA championship for WVU,” said Spurgeon.  “I have had an amazing journey here in Morgantown, and in this sport.  At the end of the day, NCAAs is not my last match; there are more for me in the future.  NCAAs is the NEXT match.  I am proud to say I’m a Mountaineer, and proud to be representing the school, the team, and all of our fans!”

WVU Freshman Ginny Thrasher (Springfield, Virginia) has been impressive in her first collegiate season in leading all rifle competitors with the top air rifle score of 599/600 that she shot on two separate occasions. The current National Team member has shown the same type of promise she displayed last summer during USA Shooting Nationals with a five-medal performance including two open and three junior medals.

Asked what makes this team standout, Jon Hammond, now in his 10th year guiding the WVU program, said it comes down to respect, depth and leadership.

“I think one of the things that makes this team special is the whole team dynamic and the atmosphere has been good this year,” he said.  “They each have a huge amount of respect for each other and are professional as teammates. They work hard with each other and for each other. I think this year’s team atmosphere is as good as we’ve had in a long time.”

“The other factor in this year’s team success is that we’ve had just as much depth this year as in past years, and we also have the benefit of a good balance between senior leadership and young talent,” added Hammond.  “They’ve all worked really hard, and each shooter has improved this season, even our four seniors, and I think that’s sometimes hard to do. It can be difficult to continually better yourself and make improvements, but our three four-year guys have all done that. I know that there’s a lot of distractions for senior student-athletes, but despite those lingering questions about their futures, they’ve had great determination and focus inside the range. When your whole team continues to improve, it has a great effect on everyone, and that’s really stood out to me this year.”

Of the other seven teams invited, Murray State seems to have the best chance to change WVU’s run of success.  The Racers will enter the championship as the No. 2 seed after finishing with the second-highest average of the scores used for qualification. After having never broken the 4690-point plateau prior to this season, MSU has been on a tear in 2015-16, breaking the mark on 10 separate occasions, which included four scores in excess of 4700.

The Racers are powered by sophomore Ivan Roe (Manhattan, Montana) who was third at the 2015 Winter Airgun Championships and recently finished 16th in Air Rifle at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand.  National Junior Team member Ben Estes (Ozark, Missouri) has also been a big part of the winning equation for the Racers team as well.

“I am very proud and happy for this team,” said head coach Alan Lollar. “Everyone has worked hard all year to get the chance to play on the last day. I can’t say enough about this special group of young people that have come together for a journey that has one more step. We are looking forward to the getting a chance to perform our best as a team, on the line with the best in the nation. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Joining Murray State and West Virginia in the eight-team field will be Alaska-Fairbanks, Texas Christian University, Kentucky, Air Force, Ohio State and Nebraska.

To read the entire NCAA Rifle preview, click here.

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