Buoyed by public support, West Virginia rifle team returns to NCAA prominence

West Virginia's 14-time NCAA champion rifle team prepares for their season.
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009


More than 60,000 people jam into Milan Puskar Stadium to cheer West Virginia's football team on Saturdays each fall. This winter, 14,000 will pack WVU Coliseum to root on a Mountaineers men's basketball team with Final Four aspirations.

But neither team is as central to this state's hard-working identity as one that draws virtually no spectators yet is exceptional on two counts.

West Virginia's rifle team is the only Mountaineers squad to have won an NCAA championship -- 14, in fact. And it's the only team with its own line item in the state budget: a $100,000 annual appropriation that represents a none-too-subtle rebuke to a university that dropped its most decorated sport in 2003.

The team's reinstatement and subsequent reclamation of its status as the nation's preeminent shooting power is one of the more improbable comebacks in college sports. Instead of aspiring professional athletes, the key players were rank-and-file taxpayers, disillusioned parents and students, and small businesses such as Donnie's Citgo and Bub's Bar and Grill that mobilized a grass-roots fundraising campaign and lobbying campaign and forced the university to change its mind.

"Hunting and shooting is a big thing here," says junior Brandi Eskew of Petersburg, W.Va., one of two women on WVU's rifle team, who learned to hunt alongside her father as a child. "It's something that pretty much everyone does at some point. And it's something they can relate to more than a lot of other sports."

This past spring, West Virginia won its first NCAA title since 1998. Off to a 6-0 start this season, the No. 1-ranked Mountaineers are on track to win a 15th championship.

"What was not understood was that people appreciated excellence," said Marsha Beasley, who coached the Mountaineers to eight NCAA rifle titles. "West Virginia comes up ranked 40th or 50th on list after list of things. People had always liked that the rifle team had been on top so much."

West Virginia bills itself as a hunter's paradise, with 1.6 million acres of public hunting ground teeming with deer, black bear and wild turkey. The two weeks of deer season alone pump $250 million into the state's coffers, according to the governor's office. And nearly every family has at least one member who takes part.

According to one study, West Virginia ranks fifth in the nation in terms of its gun-ownership rate (55.4 percent), trailing only Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and South Dakota.

So it's little wonder that WVU was a national power from the moment the NCAA designated rifle as a scholarship sport in 1980, either winning the national title or finishing as runner-up every year until 1998.

Contested in indoor shooting ranges, NCAA-style rifle is an entirely different type of marksmanship from hunting. There are two disciplines: air rifle, in which standing shooters fire lead pellets at targets 10 meters away; and smallbore, in which shooters fire .22 caliber smallbore rifles at targets 50 feet away from prone, kneeling and standing positions. While some say it's 90 percent mental, it also represents a withering test of balance, abdominal strength and stamina.

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