Posted: December 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm

MORGANTOWN – The Mountaineer, the mascot of West Virginia University, carries a rifle at his side, but it’s the university rifle team that generates the biggest bang around campus.

The 14-time national champions are currently ranked No. 1 in the country. They’re also shooting some of the best scores collegiate competition has ever seen as they continue to break records this season.  And two WVU sharpshooters, one on the current team and another who graduated in 2011, went to the London Olympics in 2012.

Yet people in Morgantown rarely notice the rifle team, whose accomplishments have long been overshadowed by the university’s popular football and basketball teams. Many students, for instance, have no idea that members of this year’s rifle team are some of the best sharpshooters from around the world and that they hail from all over, including Germany, Poland, Alaska and of course West Virginia. Even Head coach Jon Hammond, who earned a master’s degree in sport management from WVU, is originally from Scotland.

Patrick Sunderman, a WVU rifle team member, taking his shot during the competition against Ole Miss.

Rifle team members also represent some of the best student athletes to compete for West Virginia University.

“It’s a program and a belief that no matter who the coach is you’re going to be successful,” says Oliver Luck, the university’s athletic director.

Part of the team’s success may be due to the fact that West Virginia is a hunting state.  According to West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources website, more than 350,000 hunters take to the woods of West Virginia every year. So it’s probably no surprise that rifle competition at the university has grown over the years and is now one of the best programs in the nation, Luck says.

So far this year, the team is undefeated.  On November 9 against Ole Miss, the athletes shot for a team score of 4720, an NCAA record.  The previous record was set by the same WVU team just over a month before when they defeated Memphis.

Such success is all the more startling given the team’s recent history. In 2008,  West Virginia University completely dropped the team from their funded programs.  Rifle was forced to become a club sport, meaning their funds either came out of their own pockets or from donations. (Men’s tennis and track-and-field were dropped as well).  At the time, university officials said they wanted to devote more resources to football and basketball, the two sports that bring in the most revenue.

It didn’t take long for the protests to surface.

“The majority of the outcry was focused on rifle,” says Luck.  “There were a lot of people here in the community who really supported rifle who went out, raised money and did dinners and tried to show the university that there is substantial support for the program.”

In March 2011, Luck and the athletic department made the decision to fund the rifle team again.  The team now receives the full allotment of scholarships and a $200,000 annual budget to support it

Since Hammond became head coach, he has led the team to one championship trophy – in 2009.  He has learned the importance of molding a team that works together well and has good chemistry.

“You can’t just go out and grab ten random people and throw them together,” says Hammond.  “I’m really recruiting [shooters] as much, if not more, on their personality, not necessarily their rifle or academic skills, and making sure that they’ll fit into the group that we have here.”

Today, the rifle team has advanced software inside the shooting range that detects each player’s accuracy as they shoot.

Freshman Garrett Spurgeon, who is on the rifle team, started shooting when he was just eight years old.  The Missouri native regularly hunts animals including deer, turkey, and coyote.  He’s competed in county matches, but also for team USA in the junior Olympics.  For Spurgeon, coming to WVU was a no-brainer.

“I think we have a really good chance of winning a national championship here,” he says.  “That’s what I really want.”

Hammond believes his current team is even better than the one that won a national title four years ago. He has high hopes for the team at the NCAA Championships in March.

“I think we’re going to go in there as one of the favorites,” he says Hammond. . “We definitely have the talent to be very successful.”

Two of WVU’s sharpshooters went to the Olympics this year. Nicco Campriani, an Italian who helped lead the WVU rifle team to its national championship in 2009, took home a silver and gold medal from the London Olympics.  Current team member Petra Zublasing also competed in London this year, although she didn’t take home any medals.

She is now the team leader in Morgantown and  last year she made the All-America first team in both air rifle and smallbore.  Yet on campus Zublasing, a five-foot-three Italian, flies under the radar. Unlike the university’s football or basketball players, she is rarely noticed on campus.  And she’s fine with that, she says.

Zublasing and the team hope to continue their undefeated season when Nebraska comes to Morgantown for the second to last competition before NCAA qualifiers in February.

“How much you improve depends on your drive,” says Zublasing.  “It’s in your power to do your best, it’s not so much in your power to win.”