LEXINGTON, Ky. - The University of Kentucky’s rifle team is on a historic roll. Last week it defeated No. 1 West Virginia to cap off a perfect 6-0 conference season and take the Great American Rifle Conference Regular Season Championship, Kentucky's sixth GARC regular season title in program history and third in as many years. WUKY Student Reporter Chase Cavanaugh has this behind the scenes profile.
When someone mentions the Kentucky Wildcats, most people would probably picture Coach Calipari’s team playing at Rupp Arena. Others might recall the sea of blue at Commonwealth Stadium. However, few would picture the Rifle Team in Barker Hall, which earned a regular season conference title last Sunday.
Rifle has been a varsity sport at the University of Kentucky for over 20 year. It won the NCAA Championship in 2011 and has produced many All-American athletes, including 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist Nancy Napolski. The program is under the tutelage of Head Coach Henry Mullins, who was on the team from 1982-1987. He says that rifle has existed in some form on campus for a long time.
“I think it was probably made officially full fledged varsity in the '80's, but I would want to say even before then you could earn your letter as far as varsity letter goes all the way dating back into the 1920's-1930's. I’ve seen pictures ROTCs had, back when we had the Kentucky Babes back in the 1940's during World War II. Its been around for a very long time.”
Like all sports, Rifle has its drills, and in this case, the drill is actual target practice. What you’re hearing now is the team shooting at targets with bullseyes less than a millimeter wide. Some are using compressed-air guns that shoot lead pellets, while others use conventional small-bore rifles. Either way, the goal is the same. Shoot the center of the targets in three positions: standing, kneeling, and prone, and without the use of a scope. Junior Emily Holsopple says the team supplements its range time with routine physical conditioning.
“We do a lot of cardio and a little bit of toning and stuff just to keep in shape because you want to be in shape, you want to have your heart rate down, you want to be in control of your muscles and not get tired and the endurance to shoot because we’re up there shooting for four hours at a time.”
Helping put all this together is Amy Sowash, the team’s new assistant coach. She was a Wildcat from 2003-2007. After graduation, she went to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs and was a member of the US team in the 2011 Sydney World Cup. Sowash has had a smooth transition into coaching, and says this year’s team works quite well together.
“We have a really great dynamic. Especially with 15 athletes, it’s hard to maintain 15 different personalities and have them all interact in a positive manner, but these athletes really do a really great job with that.”
Kentucky has a diverse lineup, with athletes from the commonwealth, across the country, and even a German transfer student. The team also has a brother-sister pair since Emily’s brother Aaron transferred from rival Alaska-Fairbanks last year. Coach Sowash says the sibling rivalry helps both of them on the range.
“They have a great friendly competitive brother-sister relationship. They’re very supportive of each other but they just want to beat each other so badly. This past match, when Aaron shot the 88, there was a sense that Emily might know that and come out and really just try to hang in there with him. That’s a great feeling to have. But at the end of the day, they pat each other on the back, and that’s wonderful.”
Kentucky competes in the Great American Rifle Conference, established by the NCAA for schools that do not have rifle programs in their main group. Last Sunday, Kentucky beat #1 West Virginia to earn a perfect conference record of 6-0 and the GARC regular season title. For the entire season, the team only lost once to TCU. Coach Mullins is proud of his team, and has high hopes for the postseason.
“Our program, and again this is like other top programs in the country. We aspire every year to win a national championship. Having that GARC victory is nice, but that’s just one feather in our hat that we’re looking to have a full headdress by the end of the year. They strive from August all the way through to this point in the season to push themselves very hard. It’s a long grueling process, and they’ve put together a tremendous body of work.”
On February 16th, the team will compete in the two-day NCAA qualifier. They’re in a good position to outshoot rivals in the upcoming GARC and NCAA championships.