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Rifle faces No. 1 (again) in preparation for postseason

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Senior Emily Holsopple will have a significant impact on Saturday's match with No. 1 WVU. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Senior Emily Holsopple will have a significant impact on Saturday's match with No. 1 WVU. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It's not how you start. It's how you finish.

That doesn't mean that winning should be deemphasized, but with a more important goal in mind down the road, losing in the regular season isn't quite be-all and end-all for the Kentucky rifle team. The Wildcats, however, have been pretty exceptional up to this point.

UK sure would like a win this weekend though when they host No. 1 ranked West Virginia in the final regular season match.

"It would be a great accomplishment with the team that West Virgina has to beat them," said head coach Harry Mullins. "A win against West Virginia would be huge stepping stone in getting where we want to be at the end of the season."

It's been an ongoing rivalry between these two top programs. West Virginia has a rich history in the sport, claiming 14 national championships, including one that they came back and "stole" from Kentucky in 2009.

Over the last several years, the teams have continued to establish themselves as among the top rifle programs in the country. Currently, West Virginia is the top dog, but it hasn't been that way all season.

The No. 3 Wildcats have already faced one No. 1-ranked opponent this season in TCU. The Horned Frogs, now ranked No. 2 and sandwiched between WVU and UK, have been the Cats' toughest task yet in the 2012-13 season.

In the mid-November match-up, UK and TCU tangled in another one-versus-three matchup with the Horned Frogs handing Kentucky its first and only loss of the season. The Cats shot well, scoring a 4693 that would have been good to beat each of the other nine opponents they've faced so far this season. TCU was fantastic on that day, however, and UK's best score of the season, a 4716, would not have been able to overcome TCU's 4718 final tally.

"They were pretty mad about the loss," said Mullins. "We tried to peak, but we didn't peak. We learned why we didn't peak and therefore hopefully we'll be able to learn from our past performances in order to enhance our present performances."

West Virginia will pose every bit of the challenge that TCU gave the Wildcats in November and then some. Now it's time to see what the Cats have truly learned since their last date with No. 1.

Though the match starts at 8 a.m. ET Saturday, several of the stars in the sport will be on display throughout the afternoon. West Virginia, as evidenced by the No. 1 ranking, has several athletes capable of earning All-America honors this season.

"They've got some very talented people between Maren Prediger, who shoots great air rifle, and Petra Zublasing, who is great in both (air rifle and smallbore)," said Mullins. "Then you add Garrett Spurgeon and Meelis Kiisk and the rest of the squad and they're definitely the team out there that everybody's chasing."

Though the competition is stout this weekend, UK isn't the No. 3 team in the country for nothing and could have a few All-Americans of its own.

The Wildcats boast a duo of shooters who are pretty special in their own right: senior Henri Junghanel and junior Emily Holsopple. Each has championship experience from their national title run in 2010 and lead the Cats as their top two shooters along with freshman Connor Davis.

They also have international experience, as Junghanel, Holsopple and Davis along with Elijah Ellis went to compete in the Bavarian Air Gun Championships in Germany last weekend. Now, for the first time in three weeks, the team will reunite to compete against the nation's best.

The time apart shouldn't be a problem, but if UK ends up losing this weekend on account of a strain in chemistry, the team as a whole is still better off.

"I think the opportunities that were given by the four being gone definitely paid dividends," said Mullins. "We ended up beating Memphis on the second day in Mississippi and came in third at the Withrow Invitational.

"Does it stink that they weren't together? Yes, but I think we prepared the overall group for that. And it probably instilled some confidence in the team as well."

At the end of the day, when the dust settles and the final shots are made, win or lose, Kentucky is focused on a much greater picture. It also likely won't be the last time that UK and WVU are shooting against each other this season.

After this weekend, UK will look forward to the NCAA Qualifier in mid-February followed by the GARC Conference Championships the following week where they will see the Mountaineers yet again. After that, if all goes as planned, Kentucky will be competing for a national championship in the second weekend of March.

Regular-season victories are great, and UK would certainly relish an upset of the Mountaineers on Saturday, but the Wildcats are much more focused on improving this weekend as they prepare for potential postseason glory.

"As long as we're on an upward climb of performance, as long as we keep focusing on performance going forward, I think that our scores will match that focus because we have talented people on our team," said Mullins.

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