Kentucky didn't come away empty handed last year, taking home some hardware in the smallbore competition as national champions. With such high expectations coming into this year, head coach Harry Mullins feels comfortable with the lofty ranking placed upon this year's squad.
"I think we're in the top three or four," said Mullins. "We definitely have the talent pool equal to some of the other teams. Depth-wise, I think we haven't shown our depth like some of the other teams have so I think we're going to have to work on that some. We try to put ourselves in the situation to be in contention to have a good season."
If that's the formula they've followed the last several seasons, the team should be in good shape to compete for the national title once more this season. Over the last four years, Kentucky has finished fourth or better, including two second-place finishes and a national championship in 2011.
With what Kentucky has returning this season, the Wildcats should be able to carry the momentum of a runner-up performance last season. With the No. 2 preseason ranking, the players are likely to use that as motivation rather than added pressure.
The players expect and welcome the high expectations.
"I think for some of them it's an expected thing," Mullins said. "That's good and bad. It's unfortunate when you take that for granted. I think they look at it a little bit and the season's so long and the polls move differently and we change our team around differently."
Mullins certainly seems excited about those returning players as well. He mentioned junior Emily Holsopple and senior Henri Junghanel as workhorses for this year's squad. Freshman Connor Davis is expected to make an immediate impact.
With Kentucky's depth, the Cats have the luxury of moving some pieces around from event to event to get some experience for some of their younger shooters while still being competitive.
But the road certainly won't be easy for Kentucky as the Cats face several of the top-20 teams in the nation starting this weekend with No. 4 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are an up-and-coming program after hiring Stacy Underwood as head coach prior to this season. Underwood served as an assistant coach to Mullins from 2007-12, becoming the first full-time assistant rifle coach in NCAA history.
Underwood was instrumental in helping lead Kentucky to its first NCAA national championship in 2011 and now looks to take her own program their starting this season in Nebraska. From the looks of things, the Huskers are already heading in the right direction. In its first competition, Nebraska defeated now No. 5 Alaska-Fairbanks, a perennial power in the sport.
With Nebraska already facing stiff competition in its first meet, the Huskers will already have a leg up on Kentucky, as the Cats will just be participating in their first event of the year. Though it's only their first event, this road meet could be very important down the road.
"I think what Nebraska did last week against Alaska-Fairbanks definitely earned them a lot of respect," said Mullins. "I think our (shooters), if they don't treat them with respect, will probably have to pay for that down the road. So this is a good test as far as making sure that we do give them the due diligence and respect that they deserve because they're a very strong and up-and-coming team."
With what Underwood accomplished during her time at Kentucky and the bonds she built along the way with some of the shooters on UK's current roster, emotions will likely be running high for both the players and Mullins himself. But despite what impact Underwood left on the program, UK isn't going to Nebraska for a reunion.
Mullins fully expects his team to put all emotions aside in Lincoln this weekend.
"I think we'll be competing against the course just like Nebraska's going to do," said Mullins, "Having the stigma of intimidation or whatever, I think Nebraska is a very viable opponent for them to compare our scores. And our guys are going to want to show Coach Underwood we love you, but we want to beat you."
But what Mullins really hopes to see is that the hard work in the offseason and preseason pays off. Though they are getting a bit of a late start to the season compared to other programs around the country, Mullins thinks his Wildcats will be ready to compete, even if they aren't quite to their potential just yet. He just hopes to see this team to continue to improve the rest of the season.
That all starts this weekend at Nebraska.
"I think our guys and girls have worked really hard in the last month and a half, and some of them during the summer, to perform at the level where they feel they should," said Mullins. "Are we 110 percent match-mode-ready? Probably not in that sense. Even if we shoot a big number, I think you'll see some really good things from us towards the end of the semester and beginning of next semester as well."