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Rifle's runner-up performance at NCAAs has Mullins excited about future

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Senior Henri Junghänel shot a 590 in air rifle at the NCAA Championships Saturday in his final performance as a Wildcat. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Senior Henri Junghanel shot a 590 in air rifle at the NCAA Championships Saturday in his final performance as a Wildcat. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Harry Mullins has a pretty good thing going. For the third straight season, UK has finished in the top two at the NCAA Championships. Mix in a national championship in 2011, and the Kentucky rifle team is arguably the most successful program in the entire department.

Having said that, there's disappointment in Kentucky's second straight runner-up finish at the 2013 NCAA Championships in Columbus, Ohio, over the weekend.

"It's always unfortunate when you don't win at the end of the year," said Mullins. "But overall, we've got to be very proud of the effort we gave throughout the course of the year."

Kentucky finished with a fairly impressive overall body of work. They earned a 10-1 regular-season record, defeated No. 1 West Virginia, finished second at the Great American Rifle Conference Championship and completed the season No. 2 in the country.

While teams are measured directly by their success at the highest level, Mullins refuses to let one meet determine the overall success of an entire season. Especially one as outstanding as the 2012-13 season.

"I thought they did a real good job," said Mullins of the season. "We shot 4,700 more times this year than we did the year before, so we're definitely moving in the right direction. The great part about that is we did that with different people each year. The primaries have stayed the same, but cycling out some of the others, so that's a testament to this year's team continuing to move that mark every year in order for us to be competitive."

Kentucky broke the 4,700 mark three times this year, including a season-high 4,716 against Army in UK's third meet of the season. From that point on, it was a roller coaster ride in terms of results for the Wildcats. They rallied to shoot 4,700 twice over their final four regular-season meets, including a 4,704 to defeat West Virginia in the finale.

Mullins and his shooters hoped that performance would spark a strong run heading into the postseason, as they looked to build on that 4,704 and trend upward into the conference and NCAA championships.

However, with more at stake, the pressure naturally builds. That was evident this past weekend at the NCAA Championships when no teams, not even national champion West Virginia, came close to breaking the 4,700 mark, the sport's standard for an elite performance.

"It's the NCAAs," said Mullins. "(Associate Athletics Director) Joe Sharpe was at the match and he's been to some regular-season matches and he was like, 'Wow, this is nothing like the regular season.' And it shouldn't be. It's the NCAAs. This is what we get evaluated on all year."

With the sport's top eight teams competing at the NCAA Championships, the separation is very narrow.

"The parity is very, very close," Mullins said. "Everybody works super hard to try and give their best level, and a lot of times it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on everybody to where the scores drop just a hair. Everybody wants to do an extra little thing."

The pressure affected each team, including the No. 1 Mountaineers who managed an aggregate score of 4679 to UK's 4670. TCU finished third with a 4664.

Now, Mullins must try to figure out a way for his team to better manage pressure situations heading into next season. Just hours after the NCAA Championships wrapped up, the UK head coach was already looking forward to next season.

"They said to take some time off and regroup and I said, 'I can't. The season just started about six hours ago,' " said Mullins. "That's being playful, but as a coach you always get excited about the athletes that you have coming in."

Add that to the mix of the athletes that Mullins has returning, and next year could be just as special as this one, if not better.

"Every year has me excited," said Mullins. "I think we have some proven veterans coming back next year, recruiting went well, when you put those two pieces of the puzzle together with all the support we get from athletics, campus and the community, and just the mindset we've put the program in, it's very exciting."

Mullins also believes the mark of a strong program is to to adjust and make the necessary changes to get better in the face of failure. That will be Mullins' and assistant coach Amy Sowash's next task when preparing for the upcoming season.

"We'll probably focus a lot more and ramp up the intensity with perhaps some tighter parameters to get them ready to deal with the pressure a little bit more," said Mullins. "For the most part, we've got some conceptual things we may change just a little bit, but I don't feel that our system is broken.

"We just didn't maximize to yield our maximum numbers. It's going to take some time to sit down and sort through the pieces."

Though Kentucky will lose some pretty important parts next season, including two-time All-American senior Henri Junghanel, there are plenty positives as Mullins looks to keep his good thing going. The experiences and challenges UK has faced this season will only help Kentucky as the Cats continue working to reach the ultimate level. Mullins won't fault the effort of his team, and if they keep pushing, it will only be a matter of time before the Wildcats are hoisting another trophy.

"I thought we had a good year," said Mullins. "Again, we can't be disappointed. We can be disappointed with the result, but we can't be disappointed with the effort we gave. When you keep striving with that type of effort, eventually we will win."

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