COLUMBUS, Ga. — University of Kentucky rifle coach Harry Mullins couldn't help but tear up a bit as he and his team listened to his shooters' names announced as national champions.
Mullins took over the Kentucky rifle program in 1987, when it was a non-scholarship sport, and led the team to national runner-up finishes in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2009 before finally winning the school's first NCAA Rifle Championship overall title on Saturday at Columbus State University.
But there was more than his own history with Kentucky on his mind. There was his father, Alger Mullins, a lifelong Kentucky fan and former member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit who passed away about six years ago. It was because of Alger that he developed an interest in the sport and went to Kentucky, and he said he was the reason he was still there, always looking for that first national championship.
So when he finally held up the NCAA trophy, Mullins said he could feel his father's pride coursing through him.
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"I was thinking that he would have really loved to see this and to see the first time for Kentucky to win this," Mullins said. "It means a lot to me because of that and because of the progression of these kids. When I put my hands around that trophy, I don't think I'll probably be able to let go of that feeling for a while."
Kentucky shot a second-place air rifle score of 2,364 points on Saturday, and when coupled with Friday's first-place finish in the smallbore event held at Fort Benning, the Wildcats nabbed their first NCAA championship with a 4,700, three points ahead of second-place West Virginia.
"It just feels so good to know we did this and what we accomplished this year," said Kentucky shooter Heather Greathouse, who finished eighth in the individual air rifle finals Saturday and third in Friday's individual smallbore finals. "We really feel like we earned this."
West Virginia's Nicco Campriani won the individual air rifle championship with a 701.0, and the Mountaineers won the air rifle team event with a score of 2,368.
Campriani, an Italian national team member and the current International Sport Shooting Federation 10-meter air rifle world champion, said Friday he was disappointed with his below-average day and second-place finish in the individual smallbore competition — won by Kentucky's Ethan Settlemires. But he was able to make up for it Saturday as he went into the finals without feeling much pressure and while holding a four-point lead, which he said was large enough to allow him to experiment with his shooting.
Campriani shot a field-best 599 in the air rifle, and West Virginia finished three points behind Kentucky, which equates to a fraction of an inch spread out over two days of shooting. For comparison, third-place TCU trailed West Virginia by 33 points and the average difference between the eight teams was more than 13 points.
"Our lead was smaller than this," Mullins said holding up a keychain about a quarter of an inch thick. "And that's over 480 shots. When people step up to the level of the competition, good things happen."
Team Smallbore Air rifle Total
1. Kentucky 2,336 2,364 4,700
2. West Virginia 2,329 2,368 4,697
3. Texas Christian 2,313 2,351 4,664 4. Jacksonville St. 2,315 2,335 4,6505. Murray St. 2,296 2,338 4,634
5. Alaska-Fairbanks 2,299 2,335 4,634
7. Navy 2,284 2,325 4,609
8. Army 2,273 2,323 4,596
1. Nicco Campriani West Virginia 599
2. Sarah Scherer Texas Christian 595
3. Henri Junghanel Kentucky 594
4. Petra Zublasing West Virginia 593
5. Anna Hjelmevol Alaska-Fairbanks 592
Other UK shooters
9. Heather Greathouse 591
10. Ethan Settlemires 590
13. Emily Holsopple 589
37. Logan Fox 578
1. Ethan Settlemires Kentucky 590
2. Heather Greathouse Kentucky 587
3. Nicco Campriani West Virginia 586
4. Tom Santelli West Virginia 584
5. Caitlin Morrissey Texas Christian 584
Other UK shooters
13. Emily Holsopple 581
17. Henri Junghanel 578
34. Logan Fox 570