Success is not a new thing for the Kentucky rifle team. During Harry Mullins' 26-year tenure as head coach of the program, high national rankings, conference championships and competing for national titles have been commonplace.
This season has been no different. In defeating top-ranked West Virginia in the final match of the regular season, UK wrapped up the Great American Rifle Conference championship. Kentucky now heads into postseason play looking to reach the one achievement that has eluded Mullins in his time leading UK rifle: a national championship.
"That's why we're in the business, to win championships," Mullins said. "It's something that's on my mind every single day."
While the next step for the program is a national title, the next steps for this team are the NCAA Qualifying Round (Feb. 12 in Lexington) and the GARC Championships (Feb. 25). If UK performs as expected, the Wildcats will likely garner one of eight bids to the NCAA Championships on March 9.
With Kentucky losing four seniors to graduation after the 2009-10 season, it may have looked on paper like UK would not quite be ready to compete on the level to which it had been accustomed. However, the emergence of newcomers Emily Holsopple and Henri Junghänel as contributors has helped UK to a 10-1 regular season and one of the deepest rosters in the history of the program.
Holsopple and Junghänel have consistently been among UK's top performers in both air rifle and smallbore, the two components in rifle competition. With that said, making up for the loss of All-Americans like Thomas Csenge, Leslie Angeli and Ashley Jackson has fallen on the shoulders of the team as a collective unit.
"I think the whole team overall really stepped up to the challenge," Mullins said. "We lost four seniors but we were not going to take the attitude that it was a rebuilding year.
Mullins cited the improvement of returners like Heather Greathouse and Logan Fox as vital to the team's growth.
"Heather Greathouse, a sophomore, has definitely developed in posting the scores that she is capable of doing," Mullins said. "She learned a lot from a tough freshman season. Logan Fox, he's a senior and last year he was fifth and sixth in smallbore, but he has moved himself up in the top three or four consistently."
UK's top performers will be in contention for All-Americaa honors when the time comes, but it's Kentucky's balance as a team that allows them to win any match they enter.
Take, for example, UK's recent win over West Virginia. The Mountaineers have reigning world champion Nicco Campriani (who has recorded a perfect 600 air rifle score this season) on the roster, but what Kentucky has is a complete team that has the ability to overcome individual mistakes with a combined effort.
"We didn't have anybody shoot a phenomenal number, but what we had was a collective team effort," Mullins said. "Individual mistakes are OK as long as they aren't repeated. We're going to live and die by what we all do."
Mullins said the team concept to a sport that can often be perceived as highly individual helps combat some of the pressure members of the team, especially the newcomers, may feel.
"We may only have one or two people going to the NCAA championship that have ever been there before," Mullins said. "It becomes a very mental game, so that part in itself puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the athletes. We've tried to get our guys to understand that 600 is the maximum, so even if somebody is struggling, you can't shoot a 610. The focus should only be on what you can do."
The result of that team approach has been a season during which UK's average team score has exceeded the highest individual match score that Kentucky recorded all of last season. Against West Virginia, UK set a season high of 4696 in a phenomenal team effort.
Since UK will almost certainly face off against the talented Mountaineers twice more this season at the GARC and NCAA Championships, the Wildcats will be called on to replicate or improve upon that performance. On the day following its loss to Kentucky, West Virginia posted a score of 4704, an NCAA high not only this season, but in the history of NCAA competition.
"On paper, (the Mountaineers) are an awesome team, but we feel we're a pretty good team too," Mullins said. "When the two get together, I think we both try to prove we're the better team."
Rifle is a unique sport in that no defense is played. That is to say that a team is in control of only its own score, meaning UK could post a season-best score in an effort to win a national title, only to be bested by an even better effort by an opponent.
What that means for Mullins is that he focuses only on his own team.
"Do I feel like this team has the capability of winning (the national championship)? Yes, but I felt that way on a lot of these," Mullins said, pointing to the seven second- or third-place NCAA trophies sitting atop his desk. "We're striving to break that 4700 mark. If we can do that and someone comes up and beats us, then we'll walk right up and shake their hands."
UK rifle wants desperately to bring home a national championship, but Mullins won't allow himself wallow in defeat if it doesn't come this year.
"Should (losing the national title) be a disappointment?" Mullins asked. "You should be disappointed you lost, but there still was that great road and process to get there."