Texas Christian comes to Lexington, Ky., this weekend boasting the No. 1 ranking in the collegiate rifle ranks to set up a heavyweight battle between the two of the top three teams in the nation. The No. 3 Kentucky team, runner-up to TCU in last year's NCAA Rifle Championships, is looking forward to reigniting the rivalry they've built over the last few seasons.
"With both us being top programs in the country the last three or four years, when you go head to head, there's always that sense of they got us last year at the tournament or head-to-head from our perspective," said Kentucky head rifle coach Harry Mullins.
But the sport of rifle isn't basketball or football. There's no defense. That doesn't mean the level of competition won't be peaking in the range of the Buell Armory 8 a.m. Saturday morning.
"At the level we're going to compete at, it's going to be a grind-it-out, shot-for-shot-type of deal," said Mullins. "They don't know that as they compete, but I think they know in their subconscious that there's no room for error."
Though Kentucky has one of the toughest schedules in the country, Mullins has been able to mix and match his lineups to build experience. Kentucky's talent level has also allowed the Cats to relax a bit through the early portion of the schedule. With the TCU's and West Virginia's up ahead and more conference meets in the near future, Kentucky's margin for error is decreasing on a weekly basis.
That all starts with TCU. And the Cats are going to have to bring it from the first shot.
"An error is going to be costly on both sides, and I think both teams know that," said Mullins. "That's the atmosphere that's going to be brought into the range at both sides. You can't B-plus it most of the time and try to close strong. You have to bring you're A-game from start to finish."
Both teams come into the match undefeated. The Horned Frogs have reached the 4,700 mark, considered the benchmark of an elite-level competition, multiple times this season. Kentucky has broken the 4,700 barrier once this season shooting 4,716 earlier in the year against Army.
Eclipsing that mark will be necessary when facing the highest level of competition that the Cats have seen thus far in the season. In order for them to get that number, Mullins wants to see his athletes continue to forge together as a unit.
"I think we can put up a strong and great number when we're all together and clicking at the same time," said Mullins. "The key is for all of us to click at the same time. That's very, very hard to do."
The Wildcats just missed the mark in their most recent meet, falling just short at 4,697 in a win over Navy. It appears they're trending upward.
Over the last few weeks, Mullins has tried to emphasize the team-first mentality. Seniors Henri Junghanel and Stacy Wheatley and junior Emily Holsopple have anchored the team at times this season, carrying the Cats to their undefeated mark. This weekend is going to require a complete team effort.
Rather than focusing on beating No. 1, however, Mullins wants his team to continue to concentrate on what it does best. His team can't be worried about chasing some of the gaudy numbers that TCU's top seniors are capable of.
"We have to come in and do the things that we do best and that's to perform at our level," said Mullins. "When we perform at our level and our solid performance, we may have some good numbers like that. But more so, we will have solid number across the board from number one through number six."
Comfort and familiarity with the home range should be an advantage against TCU. Kentucky has been shooting very well in practices over the last few weeks, and the rising scores are indicative of that. The challenge the rest of the way will be to build the bridge from the practice rounds into the day of the competition.
"They feel they have a lot left to give," said Mullins. "The only question is when will they give it and will it be all at the same time? Under these conditions it would be a great accomplishment if they could do that."