The No. 3 Kentucky rifle team (10-1) is coming off a match in which the Wildcats took down the most decorated team in the sport, No. 1 West Virginia, defeating the Mountaineers in Lexington, 4704-4695. The win, while impressive, is just that: another win.
Well, it meant a little more than that, perhaps. The victory gave Kentucky the Great American Rifle Conference regular-season championship too. While that's an impressive honor, the Wildcats have their sights set on returning the NCAA championship trophy to the Bluegrass.
Defeating West Virginia in the first of likely three meetings this season is just UK's first taste of what they are hoping is yet to come.
"If you break it down to a three-course meal, we got the appetizer," said UK rifle head coach Harry Mullins. "Now we're kind of looking at the main course and then we'll get dessert at the end, because that's the sweetest one."
Mullins knows it's the sweetest because he's tasted it that success before. In 2011, Kentucky climbed the summit of the rifle world and won its first national championship.
Now firmly entrenched as one of the top rifle programs in the nation, the Wildcats are battling the likes of fellow powerhouses No. 1 West Virginia and No. 2 TCU.
Though Kentucky took down No. 1, the Cats fell to TCU earlier in the season. While a loss is always disappointing, the nature of the sport allows for moral victories if you lose and still shoot well. After all, the rankings are based on the average of each team's top-three scores of the season.
Despite the loss, Kentucky never wavered on continuing its path to its long-range goals.
"Obviously the TCU loss in the fall was disappointing, but we still had a good performance," said Mullins. "I don't think their attitude has changed any, though, because we're looking toward that end goal, training so that we have a great performance for the NCAA Championships."
And the win against West Virginia, even though it came against the top team in the country, hasn't changed the Cats' attitudes either.
"It didn't change the way I think," said junior Aaron Holsopple. "West Virginia's still ranked No. 1 last time I checked, TCU's still ranked No. 2 and we're still in the same spot. We shot a good match that day. They didn't shoot up to their reputation and the expectations of themselves, and we did."
That attitude and mentality has Kentucky near the top of the sport, and has kept the Cats there for several years. Now, UK is annually in the hunt for national championships, though they may not come with the frequency as the Wildcats would like. It's an attitude that is a combination of the state of the program, the success speaking for itself, and what Mullins looks for when recruiting his athletes to Kentucky.
"The type of people we look for in the program," said Mullins, "sometimes it's learned and sometimes it comes natural. Part of it is it's not one particular area. Part of it comes from our sport because we're constantly striving for that perfect number."
The 4700 mark is one that Kentucky has reached on three separate occasions this season. It's a mark the Cats strive for, but it's hardly their ceiling. UK is still looking for its perfect number, but the Cats are more than OK with the fact that they haven't found it yet.
Kentucky's high score on the season is a 4716, which came way back on Oct. 21 against Army. Since then, the Cats scored a 4705 to defeat Alaska-Fairbanks and the 4704 that propelled them past West Virginia. When the Cats dropped their lone match of the season to TCU, the Horned Frogs shot a 4718. As the Cats appear to be trending up, they look to build on that 4704 mark they shot against West Virginia with designs on an uphill ascent heading into conference and NCAA championships.
"I really feel like the West Virginia match was a stepping stone," said Holsopple, who shot a career-best 588 in smallbore. "It was just the foothills of what's to come. We haven't peaked at all this year. We're still working up to it on a gradual slope and I think it's going really well."
That gradual slope is going to have to lead to Kentucky stringing back to back performances together, specifically in the conference championships and heading into the NCAAs. So far, Kentucky is yet to string consecutive performances of 4700-plus.
"That's a challenge that we have to overcome and an evolutionary part of our program," said Mullins.
This weekend, UK heads into the NCAA Qualifier, scheduled for Feb. 16-17 in the Cats' home range once again. Though Kentucky is a virtual lock to make the NCAA Championships, this weekend is another opportunity for UK to build on the momentum and the confidence it gained by defeating the Mountaineers.
"It's important," said Holsopple. "The West Virginia match was the first step. I feel like this one should be somewhere around the same level. If we dip here, it might affect our confidence a little bit. I think if we shoot at the same level it will boost us into the championships."
Kentucky will then see West Virginia again in the GARC Conference Championship for a second time. That match will carry a bit more importance, but knowing that UK has already knocked the Mountaineers off once will only help the Cats going forward as they continue to their quest up the mountain for the ultimate prize.
"Coming up with a win against West Virginia helps solidifies that confidence that we're marching toward that goal," said Mullins. "For our team to be able to see that they can compete with West Virginia, especially shoulder to shoulder, I think definitely helps strengthen their confidence moving on to the next phase."