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Rifle heads to GARC Championships, rematch with No. 1 West Virginia looming

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Emily Holsopple looks to earn her first GARC Championship this weekend in Oxford, Miss. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Emily Holsopple looks to earn her first GARC Championship this weekend in Oxford, Miss. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky rifle team heads south to Oxford, Miss., for the Great American Rifle Conference Championships this weekend, UK is also inching closer and closer to the NCAA Championships. With UK already being selected to the NCAA field earlier this week, this weekend's meet will not only give the Wildcats a the opportunity to gain more competitive experience, but it provides the chance to earn some hardware.

Kentucky veterans are already decorated performers, but this weekend caries extra significance to some of them, particularly junior Emily Holsopple.

"(This weekend) means a lot in terms of getting ready for the NCAA Championships," said Holsopple. "We want to go out and perform our best. Honestly, I've never won a conference championship, so it would be great to do to build momentum going into nationals."

Ultimately, though, for a program like Kentucky, as well as the West Virginias and TCUs of the rifle world, the focus is to prepare for the NCAA Championships.

Having split its meets with TCU and West Virginia so far this season, UK will get a rematch with the Mountaineers after defeating WVU in Lexington just 20 days ago. The Cats will see them yet again in the NCAA Championships.

Last weekend, however, not facing either team, UK wasn't completely sharp in its NCAA qualifying round. With a chance to perform in that competitive environment and improve under pressure, UK didn't quite live up to the billing.

"Under the gun, some of our individuals struggled because they've been training hard and performing hard," said head coach Harry Mullins. "They've been right there at the threshold to get to that next level of performance as far as yielding the scores go. It's not like they aren't working hard, it's just that the hard work they are giving isn't yielding the scores."

With the postseason here and UK creeping closer and closer to that ultimate goal, the pressure only increases. From here on out, starting this weekend at the GARC Championships, it will be about who can handle that pressure moving forward.

"I'm hoping from an individual perspective we'll be able to do that," said Mullins. "Now it's more about who can hold up under the pressure. The pressure being that everybody wants to win and that everybody wants to put the highest score up possible so that the team wins and from an individual standpoint."

That pressure will loom large this weekend as a revenge-seeking No. 1 West Virginia team looks to overcome the No. 3 Wildcats. Though WVU likely poses the biggest threat to UK and its chances for a GARC title, it's important that Kentucky doesn't focus on their opponent, rather the course they will be competing in.

As Mullins often philosophizes about in his office and to his team, in the sport of rifle, there is no defense. So Kentucky must handle their own business if they hope to come away as champions this weekend.

"You can't just think about West Virginia," said Mullins. "Otherwise someone will come up and sneak up behind you. You've got to think about the course. When you start thinking about just West Virginia, not that you can take them lightly, but you want to use those types of things as motivators throughout the course of the season, and then from there on out, just work on working on the performance."

One of Kentucky's strengths this season has been composure. The Cats don't get too wrapped up in the hype of facing the top teams in the country. And they don't let down their guard when they face anyone else. Their highs are never too high and the lows never too low.

That's why last weekend's performance won't affect them at the conference championships. That's why this weekend, whether UK defeats the field that includes West Virginia or not, it won't affect the Cats heading into the NCAA Championships.

"It's important, but it's not make-or-break," said Holsopple. "If we don't do well, we still have the NCAA Championships, so either way, we're going to learn from it and move on."

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