The Mountaineers are, without question, the most successful program in NCAA history, having won a record 15 national titles – the next closest program has 10 – along with 16 individual collegiate championships, multiple Olympic gold medalists and a 10-0 record this year, culminated by consecutive wins over No. 3 Alaska-Fairbanks and No. 2 Kentucky to finish the season. The last time WVU lost a match was more than a year ago, on Feb. 2 at Kentucky. Since then, West Virginia has won 11 consecutive team matches, its fourth straight Great American Rifle postseason title, one GARC regular season championship and its latest national title.
Jon Hammond’s latest team was already loaded with a junior class the eighth-year head coach called his best, noting that “never, since I have been here, have we had that kind of depth and talent in any one class. It’s pretty remarkable.” And then the Mountaineers added the polishing piece in Ziva Dvorsak, a decorated international shooter for Slovenia who finished 11th at the London Olympics in the women’s 10-meter air rifle. Dvorsak attended the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia before enrolling at WVU in the spring and immediately moved into among the top spots, setting a team-high with an 1181 average over her five matches.
That could rattle less successful programs, but West Virginia – 66-6 overall, 34-4 in the nation’s best rifle conference since 2009 – has collectively embraced Dvorsak. The junior class of Germany’s Maren Prediger, Estonia’s Meeelis Kisk, Dvorsak and U.S. natives Taylor Ciotola and Wellsburg, W.Va.’s Thomas Kyanko anchored a team that just shot a new national and school record in the air rifle discipline with a 2382 team score against Kentucky. Perhaps most impressively, West Virginia, in its last match against UK, also added a 2320 in smallbore for a combined 4702 score which was – get this – solid enough to defeat the nation’s second-rated squad and claim the GARC title but just the fourth-best total for the Mountaineers this season alone.
“All five are going to leave here as All-Americans,” Hammond said. “Four of them already are, and Ziva isn’t just because she hasn’t had the opportunity. That’s five incredibly talented shooters who played their part. Obviously, we are focused on this season and finishing strong, but next year is going to be enjoyable with this group.”
It’s uncanny, really, this showcase of success. The program seems to have regained much of the stranglehold it had on the collegiate rifle world from 1988-98, inclusive, when it won 10 national titles in 11 years, finishing second the other season. A Mountaineer shooter has won the last three individual air rifle titles with Nicco Campriani’s 2011 championship chased by consecutive ones from Petra Zublasing in 2012 and ’13. And now, it appears Dvorsak might have the greatest chance for a four-peat.
“She’s fit pretty good into the team,” said Prediger, who, like Kisk, averages a 1167 aggregate and is expected to be an every-match counter. “I knew here before she was here, and Petra knew her before. I’ve seen her in international competition and shooting in German league. I knew she was good in air rifle. She has a good, kind personality and gets along with every person and with every character. It’s been a nice, smooth transition. The first time people come into team might be some distance between teammates, and that was absolutely not there.
“I don’t feel that we have that competition to be the No. 1 on the team,” Prediger added. “Everybody tries hard to be on the same level as everybody else. There’s some competition going on, but for the most part we are all equally good and we all together try hard to get better. It was good to have Petra be the No. 1 (last season) because she was strong leader, but it’s also good to maintain that team goal of getting better altogether, not have somebody you can rely upon to shoot top scores every time.”
Hammond has overseen two national championships, four individual NCAA titles, four consecutive Great American Rifle Conference postseason championships, one undefeated season, 55 National Rifle Association (NRA) All-America honors and seven Capital One Academic All-America recognitions. He understands the value of a well-suited athlete.
“She’s fit in great,” he said of Dvorsak. “She has a lot of experience and is really grounded. I’ve known her for a while now, so I hope that makes her transition easier. I think having Ziva come in has put us closer to what we had last year. It’s not one person like with Petra. All are capable of stepping up, and on any given day anybody can shoot a really, really high score. There’s a lot of confidence and trust within themselves and each other. We’re in a good spot to finish strong. I do think Ziva has added competition within the team, and having another really good shooter takes pressure off of everyone else.”
Dvorsak said she never thought about coming to the United States during high school, but a far better relationship between athletics and academics and the quality and availability of facilities persuaded her. “In Slovenia, we don’t have anything like this,” she said of the WVU rifle range. “And it’s very hard to make-up exams. Professors say you should be there. Here, I can shoot all year around.”
Dvorsak, who does have plans to attempt to compete at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said she chose WVU because of her relationship with Hammond. She had no deep familiarity or knowledge of the state of West Virginia until a visit in November. The initial WVU connection was made at World Cup matches, and grew with Dvorsak’s knowledge of Zublasing and her interactions with Prediger and Hammond.
“It’s like I’m settled in some days,” she said of the culture difference. “Then some days I am confused. But it’s nice to be on a team. We don’t have that, either. It’s good to compete with and for each other.”
It’s not simply a European invasion, however. Garrett Spurgeon, from Canton, Mo., is among the better shooters, averaging a 1176 aggregate. The sophomore set and matched his career high in the wins over Alaska-Fairbanks and Kentucky with a 1181 in both outings, and is certainly as dialed in as any Mountaineer heading to the NCAA Qualifiers. Patrick Sunderman, from Farmington, Minn., is averaging a 1165 aggregate, just two points off of the 1167 averages amassed by Prediger and Kiisk. Kyanko shot a 1179 against both UAF and UK, topping his four European teammates. A junior, the Brooke High grad has spent time with the USA Junior National team and was an individual qualifier at the 2013 NCAA championships, finishing seventh in smallbore.
With that much talent, and already having dispatched the top two teams in its last two matches, might there be a fear of overlooking the Feb. 22 NCAA Qualifiers, held at Murray, Ky., the same location as the NCAA Championships and a range at which – Hammond calls it “good scheduling” – West Virginia has already placed first this season at the Withrow Invitational?
“I think every team that shoots good results has the risk of being overconfident,” Prediger said. “We are working a lot on what is important, the right way to be confident. We’ve had tough matches, and we know it could have gone to either side of for better or worse. We are aware of that and know that we have to shoot well each time.”