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Rifle welcomes intensity of top-five matchup with Alaska-Fairbanks

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It's been 56 days since the Kentucky rifle team has fired a shot in team competition. You have to go all the way back to Nov. 17 when the Wildcats hosted No. 1 TCU. Sunday, Kentucky gets back on the horse with a match in Murray, Ky.

The opponent? No. 4 Alaska-Fairbanks. That's not exactly the ideal way to ease back into the competitive ring. Yet, the first match out of the holiday break has usually spelled success for Harry Mullins and his team.

"After you take a break and go and compete, we've typically seen some success just coming right out of the chute," said Mullins. "During our training camp during the break, we don't have a lot of the other time commitments that athletes typically have to deal with."

Kentucky, the No. 3 team in the collegiate rifle rankings, is hoping that it can get back to where it was before the break. Though the loss to TCU was disappointing, the Wildcats still shot 4693 as a team. Most teams in the country would be ecstatic with that type of effort.

Not Kentucky.

Mullins and his athletes, two years removed from a national championship, know that there are points to be had and there's more effort to be exerted on the range. In order for that to happen, the shooters must give of themselves to their teammates. Mullins instituted several team-building exercises during their training time over the winter break. He's seen his team begin to jell off the range with hopes of that translating to more success on it. It's going to take teamwork.

"Teamwork in the sense of everybody not necessarily everybody maxing out on their performance, but not leaving easy points out there on the board," said Mullins. "We don't want to sit there and bank on two or three people shooting high-590s and then others coming in in the 580s. We'd much rather stay in the mid to low 590s across the board."

The intensity died down a bit after the disappointment of their first loss of the season at the hands of TCU, but as training camp picked up and the date with Alaska-Fairbanks drew near, the intensity has picked back up as Mullins has introduced some self-manufactured pressure into the range.

With another meeting of top-five shooting teams in the country set for Sunday in Murray, the quantity and the quality of the athletes on the range should be enough to send the intensity through the roof. Not to mention the fact that UK and Alaska-Fairbanks have become rivals over the years with each having their fair share of success.

"We've taken our licks on the chin against Alaska many years," said Mullins. "We've been fortunate to be on the other side of that the last few years, but Alaska's a quality program. It's going to be very close, and we're going to have to work hard to get it to fall in our favor."

What will add to that intensity is the pressure they'll experience of performing against another top-5 opponent. That pressure will likely be there as Kentucky makes its way down the homestretch to the postseason.

"Having the pressure put on them, because every match from here on out is going to be pressure-ridden because we're trying to prepare them for the NCAAs," said Mullins.

The pressure and intensity is key because Kentucky is going to have to learn how to deal with and overcome adversity in order to be properly seasoned for the road ahead. That's why Mullins doesn't hesitate to schedule teams like TCU and Alaska-Fairbanks.

Mullins is simply looking for the best way to motivate his shooters to be ready when the postseason comes.

"The holidays are nice, but we try to put the schedule together so that most, if not all, matches from here on out have a postseason intensity," said Mullins. "We've put some parameters on the team and requirements on things they have to do and cut down the travel squad just to increase the intensity on the range."

On Sunday, Mullins will get to see if all of that preparation pays off and if the Cats are on the right track for postseason success.

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