Sunday, November 13, 2011

A West Virginia Shootin' Match

Yesterday I attended the WVU Rifle Team shooting match against the Rebels of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Many West Virginians are justifiably proud of the WVU Rifle Team, even though they don’t really understand the sport or attend the competitions. It just seems appropriate that West Virginians, many of whom love hunting and guns, should be good at rifle shooting. After all, our mascot fires his rifle at every game (hopefully many times!).

There is another reason why West Virginians love the rifle team—it is the only WVU team to win a national championship, and they have done so 14 times (most recently in 2009, but so far they are doing quite well this season). Although their matches are not well attended, we are quick to brag about their multiple championships.

I had time yesterday to observe part of their match against Ole Miss. The match started at 8:00 and runs all day long, so I spent about an hour Saturday morning supporting the Mountaineers, before heading back to join Anna for the first half of the WVU-Cincinnati football game (I listened to the second half on my radio headphones from inside the Coliseum, cheering on the WVU Volleyball team).

The shooting range is located within the “Shell Building” next to the Coliseum. The Shell Building also houses the natatorium where the swimming and diving meets are held. [I got to watch some of the pre-meet practice activities at the pool, because the WVU Swim Team was hosting Villanova and Cincinnati at noon yesterday, too.]

To see a rifle match, you go into a room that has glass windows allowing one to see the shooting range. However, the seats all face a different direction—the main focus of attention is an overhead projection of the targets, which are all electronically scored. The knowledgeable fans prefer to watch the results of the electronic target scoring, rather than the actual shooting itself. Being a “rookie,” I preferred watching through the window at my left, where the actual shooting takes place. There were many interesting tidbits I observed.

First, they are not shooting your basic hunting rifles. They use very specialized competition guns (Anschutz?) that have probably never trampled through the West Virginia woods. I bet they are delicately balanced, with exotic scopes. During the hour I was there, it was the air gun competition (shooting pellets, not BBs). You could hear the “plinks” of the pellets hitting the target.

At each shooting station, there was a stand that included a laptop computer, which provided the same visual representation of the target and the shots that the crowd was watching. The shooter could get real-time feedback of how they were doing. This stand also held their Gatorade bottles—they are athletes, after all.

The uniforms they wear were unusual, but specialized for their purpose. In order to help them stand still and aim as accurately as possible, they wear a heavy, stiff, leather outfit—perhaps better termed as an exoskeleton. There are numerous zippers (including a major one down the back of each of the legs) which had to be unzipped just to sit down. I noticed a few of them took a few steps looking like Frankenstein with their stiff-legged walking before they unzipped their legs.

I noticed that a few of the shooters had tape measures stretched out on the floor, and were used to ensure that the shooter placed his or her (one of the WVU shooters and many of the Ole Miss shooters are female) feet in exactly the right spot. They also wear unusual shoes, which seemed a bit squared off in the front. The soles were thin with little support (more like slippers), because they aren’t doing any running in them.

It may be a team sport, but the competition is very much individualized. Others are on the shooting range at the same time, but the shooters seem to be intensely concentrating on their own performance. The hour or so I was there, the shooters would shoot for a while, then lay their guns on the stand, unbutton their stiff jackets, unzip the back of their pants legs, and then sit down in a chair behind the shooting station and chill out for a while. One girl I noticed got out her iPod and listened to MP3s as she took a break. Then, whenever they were ready, they would get back and resume shooting. I was only there for a short time of their all-day event, so I don’t know what “the whole shooting match” entailed. It is obvious that they must have laser-like concentration, so taking a break every now and then must help.

When I left, the white board to the right of the seating area, where a running score of the points were being kept, showed the Mountaineers were winning. As it turns out, they lost the air rifle competition by one point (2348-2349), but won the small bore competition that afternoon by a large margin. The victory allowed the Mountaineers to continue their unbeaten streak so far this year. Might we see a 15th national championship at the end of this season?

I can now count the Rifle Team among the WVU sports I have supported, after spending some time watching their match yesterday. It really isn’t a great sport for spectators, but the WVU Rifle Team deserves our support. I’m glad I finally got to see them in action. [For more information, check out this article --]

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