MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The West Virginia University rifle team entered this season as the No. 1 team in the country. Through three matches, all against ranked competition, the Mountaineers have met preseason expectations.

The Mountaineers tied the program record for aggregate score in the season opener against No. 11 Akron.

A week later, they claimed victories on back-to-back days against No. 4 Ole Miss and No. 8 Memphis. The Rebels qualified for last year’s NCAA Championships in both air rifle and smallbore, much like the Mountaineers.

West Virginia remains the No. 1 team in the nation in the latest CRCA poll.

“For college, though, I think we have definitely the best team that is out there right now, and I have a lot of confidence in our returners and in our incoming freshmen,” said fifth-year senior Mary Tucker. “I told the team after our match on Saturday (against Akron), I felt like that was the best environment that we’ve ever had.”

Tucker said that even while feeling there was room for improvements in West Virginia’s near-record-breaking scores.

“I think everybody, individually, had at least five points that they could’ve made up, and to still have that score really shows that I think we have a really good chance this year,” she said.

Tucker will participate as much as she can this collegiate rifle season while she simultaneously competes in national and international stages. She and several other Mountaineer rifle athletes recently completed the first of three phases in the 2024 Olympic Trials for Team USA.

WVU rifle’s 10-person team includes just two underclassmen. This veteran-laden group lead by head coach Jon Hammond has a good understanding of the things they need to do off the range to be successful with a rifle in their hands.

“We have the main goal in common of, we want to win every single match we go to,” said senior Molly McGhin. “Not compare ourselves to others, in that sense, but just give it our very best and our very best will be good to beat all the schools out there.”

Rifle student-athletes compete in one of the most unique seasons of any collegiate teams.

WVU’s season began on October 7 and will last through the WVU Fall Classic on November 11-12. The regular season goes on pause for two months before resuming on January 20. The Mountaineers will then have just three matches to get locked in before NCAA Qualifying on February 17.

Three weeks later, the WVU Coliseum doors will open for the NCAA Rifle Championships. It will mark the second time in the last five seasons WVU has hosted the national title rounds. West Virginia finished as the national runner-up inside the Coliseum in 2019, falling just nine points shy of champion TCU.

Tucker, a two-time national champion at Kentucky, was in line to participate at the NCAAs in Lexington in 2020, though that championship was canceled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Four years later, she now has the chance to do something she hasn’t done before — win it all in her home city.

“I have a lot of experience with the lead-up of emotions, to have it on your home court and have the fans know what that means. There was a lot of hype surrounding it,” she said. “There were people who didn’t even know rifle existed who were buying tickets. I think we had a sold-out stadium there, and rifle is a bigger deal here than it was there.”

Nearly five months still separates the Mountaineers from a potential 20th national championship in the sport. But the athletes can already sense the buzz surrounding the 2024 NCAA Championships.

“A lot of people I don’t know have told me, ‘I’m going to be watching.’ It’s really nice to know that they want you to win, and want you to do well,” said McGhin. “So, I think we’ll take that and (use) it as encouragement, and something that will help us.”

Despite the national title matches being played in Morgantown, WVU athletes will have to trade in their home beds for a hotel room if the program qualifies for the event, per NCAA rules. The fan support that is expected could be the fuel that eventually helps the Mountaineers reclaim the top spot in the sport for the first time since 2017.

“Everybody’s going to be here supporting us,” said Tucker. “And to know that we are the favorites is going to give more motivation than pressure and we want to win for ourselves, we want to win for our teams, and we want to win for everybody who’s watching.”