After not bringing home an NCAA National Championship for the first time in five years in 2019, the West Virginia rifle team was itching to get back to the top.
The Mountaineers spent much of the 2019-2020 season atop the national rankings, duking it out with Kentucky and defending champion TCU for the top spot. Their strong competition created a tough atmosphere for WVU, who headed into the National Championships in Lexington, Kentucky as the third-ranked team in the country.
“I think this was one of the first championships in a handful of years that we felt we weren’t going there as favorites,” Coach Jon Hammond said.
Until the postseason, the Mountaineers looked like they were keeping pace with their other championship seasons. The Mountaineers faced — and defeated — top-15 teams in each of their meets, including victories over No. 2 TCU in Morgantown in October and No. 5 Akron in November.
All things seemed to go right for WVU as they hit the season’s homestretch.
“I think we had a good team this year. Obviously, those numbers are pretty consistent with the last four or five years, [and they were] pretty similar to TCU,” Hammond said. “I think they had one really big score, but for the most part their average was in the same neighborhood.”
This season, though, it was less about either the defending champion Horned Frogs or the typical powerhouse Mountaineers, but the surging Wildcats.
“Kentucky just took a huge step up,” Hammond added.
West Virginia’s first loss of the season came to Kentucky in their season finale, before the Wildcats once again topped the Mountaineers in the GARC Championship.
When the National Championships were ultimately canceled, Hammond says he was very disappointed — not just at the lost opportunity, but the lost competition from the perspective of fans.
“Really just as a fan, I would have loved to see it unfold and take place,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t have been putting any money one way or another.”
The success from 2019-20 season was not all lost, though, especially at the individual level. 21 Mountaineers made All-American teams, with the most notable being senior Milica Babic, who was named to the first team for the three possible All-America squads.
“I was excited for our guys to compete, and I definitely think they had a great chance,” Hammond said. “We weren’t favorites, but we’ve been there before and we haven’t won as favorites.”