West Virginia coach helps put pieces together for national championship run
COLUMBUS, Ohio — No head coach had to be sturdier than West Virginia’s Jon Hammond during this weekend’s NCAA Rifle Championships at Ohio State.
His team arrived wearing a giant albatross — the nation’s top ranking — but this is not breaking news. Hammond’s shooters were gunning for an NCAA-best 15th NCAA rifle title and the second under his tenure. The fact they were in the sights of seven other teams who received bids to compete for the 2013 championship is the type of pressure coaches crave.
“It’s a hard match to shoot,” Hammond said. “And I think a lot of it is our season is measured by this weekend. We’ve been No. 1 for a good portion of the year and shot some national records and great scores, but it doesn’t really count for anything coming into this weekend.”
Hammond’s Mountaineers delivered Saturday at OSU’s French Field house, winning the air rifle portion of the competition to clinch their latest NCAA crown. West Virginia was third following Friday’s .22 caliber smallbore competition at Converse Hall’s Lt. Hugh W. Wylie Range, entering Saturday’s air-rifle session trailing the then-second-place Alaska-Fairbanks and first-place Kentucky.
“What a way to go out,” he said. “I think the teams maybe felt confident and I think we were the best team this year. We shot the best numbers throughout, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot when you come here.
“So I’m just really proud that they got the job done and they all had to fight a little bit, sort of what we’ve pushed them to do all year — and just be tough and grind it out. It wasn’t pretty but they did that this weekend.”
West Virginia has been doing it for decades. As the number of NCAA championships imply, Mountaineer shooters excel season after season, not always winning a national title, but almost always in the hunt.
Hammond is the program’s latest caretaker, its head coach since the 2006-07 season. He follows esteemed predecessors Ed Etzel, who established West Virginia’s national dominance with four NCAA titles, and Marsha Beasley, who won eight NCAA titles and whom Hammond succeeded in 2006.
He also shot for the now-retired Beasley, spending one season (2002-03) on the Mountaineer rifle team while a graduate student pursing a masters degree in sports management. Now, in his seventh season as West Virginia’s head coach, Hammond has two national titles — 2009 and the newly-won 2013 mantle — plus a runner-up finish behind the Kentucky in the 2011 NCAA Rifle Championship.
“For me it was a bit of a rebuilding job,” he said, “but I’ve just tried to build it back up and have a strong team. All the ingredients are there. West Virginia is a great university, offers a ton of different majors. It’s got a great shooting program, fairly good geographical location. All the pieces are there for me to go and do my job.”
Hammond’s recruiting philosophy keys how he does his job. He recruits both nationally and worldwide. The five West Virginia team members who competed this weekend reflect that. Senior Petra Zublasing, from Appiano, Italy, spurred the Mountaineers with high-caliber performances in the team portions of the air rifle and smallbore rifle competitions. She also swept the individual honors in both disciplines.
Sophomore Meelis Kiisk is from Paide, Estonia. Sophomore Maren Prediger is from Petersaurach, Germany. Freshman Garrett Spurgeon is from Canton, Mo. Sophomore Taylor Ciotala is from Pasadena, Md. Sophomore Thomas Kyanko, who earned an NCAA bid for the individual air rifle and smallbore competitions, is from Wellsburg, W.V.
West Virginia All-American and Italian native Nicco Campriani, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 50-meter, three-position event, set a firm tone with his NCAA exploits. His two collegiate seasons, 2009-10 and 2010-11, were marked by a takeover of the team’s record book.
“Nicco changed the level of shooting in U.S. college,” Hammond said. “He came over here and started shooting world-record scores — 590 and 600 in air rifle which really hadn’t been done before. The next lot coming through, that raised the bar. That raised the bar for us. It’s like, ‘you’ve got a kid doing that every day in practice?’ They’re like, ‘okay, that’s possible.’
“They have someone to push and chase and Petra’s maintained that for us and we have other fantastic international team members on our team. And the U.S. guys, I think it’s great for them to have other cultures, be exposed to different stuff and have other really good shooters to push them.”
Hammond appreciates recruiting international shooters because he once was one.
A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Leeds and decided to pursue his graduate degree in the United States. He says he wishes he could’ve shot more than one year in NCAA competition, but still competes internationally with Great Britain’s national team. And, his brief NCAA shooting career allows him to relish the experience of a national championship.
“I was that foreign kid that was just here to shoot for a year,” Hammond said. “So I came to [national] championships and to me it was just another match. It was fun, but I think the international students deal with it better because it’s just another match for them. Now, the ones who have been here longer, they’re all going to feel it a little bit more.”
When it came time to launch his coaching career, Hammond knew where he wanted to be — in Morgantown, W.Va. He served as volunteer assistant coach before succeeding Beasley.
“I guess it’s somewhat similar to Scotland,” he said. “There’s the outdoors and the hills. The atmosphere here is awesome. Morgantown and the university have such a community feel and then the fact the university is the big show in the whole state. The whole state rallies around the Mountaineers and the teams and the university and that really creates just an amazing atmosphere.”