The West Virginia Mountaineers rifle team is a historic program. By any measure, they are the best rifle program in NCAA history. They have a 678-104 record, 453 NRA All-Americans, and 34 Olympians.
Most importantly, the program has more championships than any other in the NCAA. The Mountaineers have 19 as a team, almost twice the second place Alaska Nanooks, who have 10.
In individual titles, the Mountaineers are just as dominant. They have 26 (12 smallbore and 14 air rifle), once again much more than second place Alaska (16).
In the last few years, the championship dominance has stopped.
The last national championship the team won was in 2017. The last individual air rifle title was in 2017 and the only title since then is an individual. Even though the 2020 championships were canceled, it is still a long time between championships for the program’s standards.
“I think the long and the short of it is that other teams have gotten better in the last four years, we've had two second places, a council championship and last year,” West Virginia head coach Jon Hammond said. “So before last year, nothing had gone wrong.”
On Saturday, the Mountaineers will start their season in Oxford, Mississippi, against the No. 2 Ole Miss Rebels. At the end of the season, they can win their first individual championship in four years, and their first team championship in five years.
Despite the issues in the past for West Virginia, Hammond isn’t focused on what’s gone wrong.
"We don't look at it necessarily as what went wrong. I think we're a sport where we don't control the opposition,” Hammond said. “It’s not like football or basketball where you're competing directly against them and you have an influence over the opposition and things like that.”
Last season, Kentucky was a power in rifle. Hammond credited that dominance to the roster the Wildcats had that provided WVU with such stiff competition.
“Last year was canceled, then this past year I think we were just young, not only were we young, other teams just got better,” Hammond said. “Kentucky won the championship again this past year. They shot the highest score ever in a national championship and their two team members, one is the Olympic champion now and the other one won an Olympic silver medal so, they had two just amazing shooters.”
“If they're back this year they're comfortably the two best competitors in the country so I don't think anything has gone wrong other than Kentucky managed to get two kids that ended up there that are both Olympic medalists,” Hammond added.
Hammond wants to see progression from his team this year, but he’s not looking for too much because of the talent WVU already has.
“We have great depth on the team and we just need to keep progressing and hopefully the team members that we have this year we just need a couple of them to continue to get better,” Hammond said. “It doesn't need to be by much because a lot of them are international high-quality athletes, they just need to keep working hard day-to-day.”
West Virginia will face Ole Miss and No. 8 Murray State to begin the season this weekend. The Mountaineers will also face Memphis (Oct. 10), NC State (Oct. 17), TCU (Nov. 6), Army (Nov. 13-14.), Air Force, Ohio State (both Nov. 14), Navy (Jan. 22), Morehead State and Kentucky (both Jan. 29).
Postseason competition begins with the NCAA qualifying match on Feb. 19 and then the GARC Championships on Feb. 28 and NCAA Championships on March 11-12.