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Kentucky rifle looks to add to body of work with another NCAA championship

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The UK rifle team begins competition in the 2013 NCAA Championships Friday morning. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) The UK rifle team begins competition in the 2013 NCAA Championships Friday morning. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Opportunities to prove that you are the very best at what you do don't come along all that often. Yes, in sports, in each individual league from little league to the Olympics, a champion is crowned. That, in essence, is a constant.

For each individual, however, especially at the collegiate level, you only get four opportunities - if you're lucky - to make your mark and leave an eternal legacy.

Kentucky rifle is a special program that continues to put itself into positions to be successful and give itself an opportunity to prove that it is the best rifle program in the country on an annual basis. While many have taken that success for granted over the years, the team itself, coaches and shooters alike, do not.

"Going into the championships, we've worked hard all year," said head coach Harry Mullins. "We bring a good body of work to the table. I feel we've put ourselves in a position that if we can continue to work hard and things bounce our way, we'll be prosperous at the end."

The run for the 2013 NCAA Championships starts Friday morning in Columbus, Ohio.

To find out how to follow along with the NCAA Championships, visit this link.

In 2011, after many years of successful runs at the NCAA Championships, the Wildcats were finally crowned as the best in the sport. The opportunity was there, and UK seized it.

As important and validating as a national championship was for Mullins and his program, it's certainly changed his philosophy on the sport. After figuring out what it took to get there and why maybe it took as long as it had, Mullins has taken away the emphasis of winning a national championship, even though it's the ultimate goal.

"After we won it and having the feeling of finally breaking through and winning an NCAA Championship, was it different than all the other meets?" said Mullins. "Yes and no. It was achieving that dream and that goal, but not to take anything away from any of the other squads that came close that gave me everything that they had, they did a pretty good job too. There's something special about winning, no doubt about it."

Mullins learned, however, the only way to get to that point is an even more important process that even allows them to experience the NCAA championship opportunity in the first place.

The pressure is not applied to just the postseason or big meets against the top-ranked teams in the country during the regular season. Every meet, every shot, every skill is equally important. That way, when UK reaches the final two days of the season this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, though the environment and setting might look different, the overall functions and execution are exactly the same, at least in theory.

"If we go into the meet worrying about winning the NCAA Championships, I say there's a high probability that we fail," Mullins said. "We've got to go do what we always do, and do it to the best of our ability and see where that lands us."

That starts at the beginning of the season when the team convenes officially for the first time. Everything from that point forward shapes and molds the type of shooters and competitors that these athletes ultimately become.

Though skill, focus, and talent are traits that ultimately lead to success, Mullins believes that the Cats fate is not ultimately in their own hands, at least not entirely. It takes a little bit of luck to come out on top on the final day of the NCAA Championships, but even though that may be true, Mullins believes that luck can be influenced.

"I think you create your own luck and your own fortune starting in August and how hard you work," said Mullins. "I feel we put in a pretty good body of work in that sense."

That body of work on paper shows that UK is the No. 3 team in the nation heading into the championship, having defeated the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the country during the regular season with the lone regular season loss coming at the hands of No. 2 TCU. Yet again, it's been one of those patented UK rifle seasons.

Despite the success and the body of work they've put together in 2013, Mullins and his team still feels there is another level they can reach. They've worked hard on the range with the intent of peaking at exactly the right moment. That is perhaps the toughest part of Mullins' job: structuring a training schedule that allows for that to happen.

The hope is that by this point in the season, needing two days of peak performance from its shooters, Kentucky can put together its best event of the season. If that happens is anyone's guess.

"Did we burn it all out? Are we going to be spent?" said Mullins. "Is our tank going to be empty by the time we get there? That's going to be hard to measure until we get there because we're dealing with humans. You try to take away as many distractions as humanly possible."

The distractions are numerous, and each one is magnified in a sport where ultimate focus and stillness is the key to success. Even the smallest flinch could ruin a good day, or worse, cost an NCAA championship.  That's what this season has been about, however: reducing the chances of that happening.

If it all comes together for Kentucky, it won't be a surprise. The Cats have set themselves up for this opportunity. They've worked for it. Mullins just hopes that his team has an opportunity at the end of the day to win that trophy.

"Every coach hopes their first shooter comes out of the gate just smoking and that the team picks up the momentum and starts stacking points," said Mullins. "It will probably boil down to the last few shots in air rifle. I'd like to see it that we're either far enough in the lead that those last few shots don't matter, or that if we're not in the lead, we're within striking distance at the end."

And if that happens, the opportunity to be the best will be within their grasp. Winning this event could change their lives.

"They, for the rest of their life, will be treated different," said Mullins.

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