WVU rifle team to represent at this summer's London Olympics
June 3, 2012 5:44 PM
West Virginia coach Jon Hammond is a shooting advertisement for the Mountaineers program throughout the world.
WVU coach Jon Hammond will shoot this summer in London.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Jon Hammond is a Mountaineer. Rifle in hand, he sets his boots shoulder-width apart, thinking only of balance and of keeping his body and mind still. His routine defines him.
Tall and slender with blue-green eyes and neatly cropped dark brown hair, Hammond portrays a boyish 31. In uniform, decked out from top to bottom in white and black leather with thick gloves and a black visor, he looks right out of a 1940s comic book. The identifier "HAMMOND GBR" runs down his back, the most obvious clue that this man may live here but is not of here.
It is silent in the West Virginia University shooting range, where Hammond has spent most of his time since coming to Morgantown nearly 10 years ago from his native Scotland. He came here to become a better shooter and get an education. Now he's the coach of the school's highly successful NCAA rifle program, and he'll represent Great Britain as a shooter in this summer's London Olympics. But it's likely he wouldn't have gotten this far without this place.
WVU rifle coach readies for Olympics
West Virginia University rifle coach Jon Hammond prepares to compete in the summer Olympics in London. (Video by Matt Freed; 6/3/2012)
Outside, a refreshing Appalachian spring day is alive, the bright sun reflecting green throughout rolling hills and valleys. Around the country, people have their opinions of the Mountain State, but no one can deny its natural beauty.
Still, West Virginia is easily ridiculed. It is one of the nation's poorest states, known mostly for having a coal refuge that's now dried up and a deep appreciation for hunting. There is that Mountaineer mascot, the face of the university and the state, bearded and covered in buckskin and coonskin, forever carrying a muzzleloader and hoisting it into the air.
Americans are divided on guns, moreso than they are on their West Virginia stereotype: Wild, backwoods and obsessed with a Mountaineer football program that bucks the national trend by selling beer at games.
Where do Jon Hammond and his rifle team fit into this landscape? They host about eight matches a year, each of which is attended by 20 or so spectators. Hammond and many of the team's shooters have no hunting background whatsoever. They do not come to this range each day seeking a thrill.
"It's very much a mental sport," Hammond says. "It's that challenge against yourself that makes it intriguing. When you are shooting, it's like your little sanctuary. You're cut off, in your own little world."
Hammond would realize that he wasn't all alone here in the mountains, though. It took the West Virginia athletic department cutting the program in 2003 and demoting it to club status for him and the hundreds of other shooters who have donned the blue and gold over the years to know how much they were valued.
A team effort brought the program back to the highest level, and now Hammond bucks that West Virginia stereotype with each precision firing.
As of 2005, the state was just 1.1 percent foreign-born, the lowest in the country. But when Hammond travels abroad to compete, he talks to college-aged shooters, recruiting them to Morgantown with an enticing pitch: Join a program that has won 14 NCAA championships and hone a craft at the range and in the classroom.
This year's squad featured three international shooters, who crossed oceans to spend hours upon hours in this solitude that Hammond enjoys. As he prepares for a practice session, he gives a warning.
"There's not much to see here," he says.
Yet, in between the monotony of each shot, you will see a rarely revealed side of West Virginia. Hammond will take in another breath, exhaling and putting his hand over his heart. He will put his head on the cheekpiece and look through the sights. He will wait. When the target is centered in the sights, he will pull the trigger and, with little reaction, prepare himself for the next shot.
Pride stripped away
Marsha Beasley is a Mountaineer, but it took some convincing back in 1989.
She had shot in college for East Tennessee State but had spent a decade after graduation working at the National Rifle Association, which had recently let her go. She was firmly unemployed when Ed Etsel, then the coach of the West Virginia rifle team, called her and told her he was ready to retire. He said she should interview.
Etsel had led the program to five national championships and won an Olympic gold medal in 1984 while shooting for Team USA. He'd come a long way since taking over the program in 1976.
Beasley's issue was that she had never coached before. But, she needed a job, and eventually, one was offered to her by West Virginia.
"I took it thinking I would just stay long enough to get a master's degree," Beasley says.
She'd be here much longer than that. Beasley coached the Mountaineers to the 1990 national championship, and they would win the NCAA crown in eight of her first nine seasons. That brought West Virginia's total to 13 national titles in the first 19 years of the sport as an NCAA event. Beasley may not have seen many people showing up for her team's matches, but she began to feel the love.
The rifle team was -- and still is -- the only West Virginia program to win a NCAA title.
"People knew my name, anywhere I'd go, all over the state," Beasley says.
But in 2003, Beasley returned to Morgantown from a recruiting trip and was met with a nightmare. West Virginia had decided to cut its varsity sport total to the NCAA Division I minimum of 16, and it weas going to eliminate the men's tennis team, the men's track and cross-country teams, and the rifle team to get to that number and satisfy the requirements of Title IX.
Right then, it seemed everything Beasley had worked for was gone. But if the university leaders thought their alumni, fans and donors weren't going to notice the absence of the rifle team on the varsity scene, it was a giant miscalculation.
"The athletic department did not have any sense of the pride that people in the state and the country took in the team's accomplishments," Beasley says. "Everyone likes things that are good about West Virginia, anything where we're at the top of the list. Unfortunately, West Virginia ends up on the bottom of the list on a lot of things."
They were all Mountaineers. Not just Hammond, then a member of the team who was suddenly looking at shooting his final year of competition at the club level. And not just Beasley, who had two young kids to feed at home.
There was Mark Sellaro and Bob Holt, West Virginia riflers in the 1970s and '50s, respectively, who were going to do everything in their power to galvanize support. There was Ron Justice, then the mayor Morgantown, who used his political sway to alert citizens of the injustice that had occurred. There was George Farmer, a Morgantown attorney who had never been to a West Virginia rifle team match but was willing to help when asked, in the name of the Hazel Ruby McQuain Foundation.
There were many others. Steve Shuman, a Morgantown attorney, led Sellaro to some wealthier potential donors. Shuman's motivation? He believed cutting the rifle team was a pointed attack on the ethos of his state. Shuman's grandson will be the eighth generation of his family to proudly and responsibly shoot a gun in West Virginia.
"I do believe that it struck a nerve with the people of West Virginia," Shuman says, "because our heritage is pretty much hunting, fishing and sport shooting. How dare you do away with a national championship program? They were picking on our heritage a little bit."
There was Neil Bolyard, who had originally endowed a full grant-in-aid earmarked for the football or men's basketball programs but now wanted it redirected to the rifle team.
"There was a backlash, without question," says D. Lyn Dotson, vice president for development for the WVU Foundation. "There was a group of people genuinely upset."
The discontent spread down the road to Charleston, the state capital where legislators received petitions signed by thousands to bring the rifle program back to varsity status.
"I had legislators tell me they had more calls on the rifle team being dropped than they had on anything in their career in the West Virginia Legislature," Beasley says.
When the people spoke, their elected officials listened. A year after the announcement that the rifle team would be cut, the Legislature ordered the West Virginia athletic department to reinstate rifle as a varsity sport and promised it would pay a large chunk of the cost to get the program back on its feet that first season.
Justice was one of the first people to hear the good news. He immediately called Beasley and let her know that her career as a club rifle coach was now over. Similarly joyous calls rang out all over Morgantown.
The whole team of supporters met that night at Outback Steakhouse. Beasley recalls legislators from both sides of the political spectrum sitting there with equally wide smiles on their faces.
Still, the coming years wouldn't be easy. Much more money needed to be raised, and Beasley still had to coach with a pay cut. She stepped down as coach in 2006, handing the reins to Hammond.
Three years later, in 2009, the Mountaineers would reclaim their spot atop the nation with their 14th national championship. That the team was privately funded was a testament to the devotion of its followers.
"It's the most satisfying for me," Sellaro says. "I felt like I contributed to it because we were raising the money to fund that team."
Since 2003, Sellaro and company have helped to raise more than $1 million for the rifle program. West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who took over for Ed Pastilong in 2010, has vowed to eventually make the rifle team a fully funded sport.
Even if that does happen, the people of West Virginia will continue giving -- just in case the program finds peril again.
Marvin Wotring, a Morgantown gunmaker known for building the musket used each year by the Mountaineer mascot, has donated two muzzleloaders for the rifle program to auction off for each of the past eight years. Some of the guns have brought in as much as $5,000 apiece.
From his shop just outside of town, he keeps track of the Mountaineer shooters and how they're doing at events. To Wotring, they represent the good in West Virginia's love of guns.
"It's a sophisticated way of shooting," Wotring says. "It's not what the average person depicts of what shooting is about. Shooting, for most of the people I associate with, it's just another game we play. We want to see how good we can actually shoot."
A new flavor
Nicco Campriani and Petra Zublasing are Mountaineers. They met in Italy years ago as fellow shooters, began dating and both ended up in West Virginia at Hammond's request.
Campriani, who shot for West Virginia in 2010 and 2011, is ranked No. 1 in the world entering the London Games. Zublasing, who shot for WVU in 2012 and has one year of eligibility left, is one of the favorites to medal on the women's side. Although they will shoot for Italy, they will be the 14th and 15th shooters with ties to the Mountaineer program to compete in the Olympics.
They came here because, in Europe, there is no such thing as a "student-athlete." You are either one or the other, and the only way Campriani and Zublasing didn't have to choose was to come to America. They both want to be engineers when their shooting careers come to a close.
Campriani and Zublasing wish more people would come to watch their matches at West Virginia, in the small shooting range adjacent to the Coliseum.
"I wouldn't say more than 20 people" come to watch, Campriani says.
That's the number standing behind the glass at the range, but that's not the number paying attention and rooting them on across the state. It's easy for the current members of the team to feel as if nobody in Morgantown cares how they do, being so far removed from the battle won in 2004. But if it weren't for the efforts of many, there wouldn't be a place for Campriani or Zublasing at West Virginia anymore.
It will be Hammond's job to continue finding the best talent, to cultivate it and make his new home proud.
"In West Virginia," Hammond says, "people care about the rifle team. It's as simple as that."