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Alaska digs out of six-point hole to claim third successive championship

Submitted by Tom Myrick
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Photo caption below.
Photo by Chris Morgan
Members of the UAF rifle team hold the NCAA Championship trophy on Saturday in West Point, N.Y. Pictured, from left, coach Dan Jordan, Billy Galligan, Taylor Beard, Christofer Olofsson, Patrik Sartz and Cody Rutter.

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On the back of a fantastic round of air rifle on Saturday at the NCAA Championships in West Point, N.Y., University of Alaska Fairbanks rifle team members hoisted the national championship trophy above their heads for the tenth time in the program's illustrious history.

Trailing hosts Army by six points heading into the day's events, the Nanooks air gun score of 2,350 was more than enough to erase that deficit, as Alaska finished with an aggregate score of 4,662: ten points better than the second-place Black Knights.

"It's so cool to see it pay off for the team, as hard as they have worked all year," said relieved head coach Dan Jordan. "To have such a young team, with three sophomores and two freshman, do what they did is phenomenal. It's got to be the youngest team to have ever won a championship."

Sophomore Patrik Sartz took home the individual air rifle title, the first foreign shooter to do so since 1994, by firing a championship-high round of 594. Amazingly, Sartz has now shot 594 or better in four consecutive air rifle matches. Fellow Swede Christofer Olofsson also medaled, finishing third overall with a clutch 592 in the anchor role for Alaska.

"Christopher probably had the most pressure of anyone. He was the anchorman, and for him to stand up against a kid [Army's Stephen Scherer] that just made the Olympic team and beat him for the national championship, that's huge."

It was a total team effort, however, that ultimately lifted Alaska to the top of the podium, with solid rounds from freshmen Cody Rutter and Taylor Beard as well. The first shooter out for Alaska, Rutter single-handedly eliminated Army's first-day lead, as the in-form freshman put a 586 on the scoreboard. Though his score would put him in eighth place after the relay, Rutter would move up two places in the finals, shooting for 102.3 in his final 10 shots. The Pennsylvania native was the only Alaska shooter to qualify for the finals in both the smallbore and air rifle events at NCAA's.

Beard, meanwhile, kept her composure after a tough start to record a strong finish, ending with a score of 579. Along with Sartz, Beard helped to ease the damage done by two of Army's big guns--Brian Kern and four-time All-American Chris Abalo--as they eased the pressure on final shooter Olofsson by spotting him a five-point cushion going into the final relay.

"I am really proud of Taylor: even when she started struggling, she was able to come back at the end and finish it up," Jordan said. "She knew she was going to be a big part of a score that really mattered, since we were behind going into today. Her experience here is going to give her confidence going into the next few years."

"Everybody shot what they should," he added. "I didn't ask them to come out here and shoot their personal best. Just as long as they shot what they should, then I knew we would have a good chance. That is all I asked of them. They all hung in there and did what they were capable of."

While Army's clung to a six-point lead from the smallbore discipline heading into today's match, the Black Knights actually stretched that advantage to eight points early, as senior David Amiot buzzed the ten-ring on 12 of his first 13 shots.

Soon after, however, Rutter had all but erased that gap for the Blue and Gold, finding the target center on 16 of his next 18 shots. As Amiot struggled, Rutter held firm, and by the end of the relay, he had transformed that eight point deficit into a one-point lead for the Nanooks.

From there, Sartz would take charge, missing the ten-ring on just two shots in his first 30 on his way to the event's highest score.

By then, it was a two-horse race, as Texas Christian, who was tied with the Nanooks after the first day, had fallen off the pace, leaving Army as the only squad with any shot of catching the two-time defending champs. Ironically, Olofsson took the line directly beside Army's Scherer in the final leg, as both shooters looked a bit nervous in their first string.

Olofsson quickly found his rhythm, however, as the sophomore calmly and confidently handled the pressure to outduel Scherer, doubling the Nanooks' lead in the process. When his final shot hit the scoreboard, the Blue and Gold team erupted in celebration, knowing they had achieved their goal.

"This year was all about learning confidence," Jordan said. "They came in a young team, still developing, and they had to learn to be confident enough to win it. That's what the whole season was: convincing them that they were good enough."

The NCAA trophy was not the only piece of silverware that the Nanooks would take home from West Point. Six Alaska shooters claimed eight All-American honors. Sartz and Olofsson earned first team All-American honors in both smallbore and air rifle. Rutter and Beard also grabbed first team honors in air rifle, while Ida Peterson landed second team honors in air rifle. Billy Galligan rounded out the All-American list with an honorable mention award in smallbore.

Jordan also got in on the awards, grabbing national Rifle Coach of the Year honors for the second year in a row, handed out at the NRA banquet following the match. Jordan claimed his third national title in three years as Alaska's head coach, doing so with a completely overhauled team which featured no upperclassmen, and only one shooter, Sartz, with previous experience at the NCAA Championships.

While the Nanooks will savor every minute of their third straight championship win, Jordan, for one, is already looking forward to next season.

"With the depth that we have, it's going to be nuts," he said. "I had three or four more shooters at home that can compete at this level as well. I think seeing what this team did this year is just going to make them work that much harder. It's going to be really interesting to see how they pick it up, and interesting to see how much the guys that did [shoot at NCAA's] will improve next year. They have confidence going into now: they know they can do it, and its going to make them shoot that much better."