Powered by stout execution from air rifle national champion Henrik Larsen, junior Hanna Carr and the rest of the Wildcats, the fourth-seeded Kentucky rifle team claimed its second national title at the 2018 NCAA Championships, hosted by The Citadel. Despite coming up short against No. 1 West Virginia at the Great American Rifle Conference Championships, the Wildcats edged the Mountaineers by nine points to take the crown from the five-time defending national champions.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team,” head coach Harry Mullins said. “The team worked through obstacles to enhance their performance. Their embracement of facing the challenge and overcoming things all season was a large part of their success this weekend. Throughout the whole tournament, they never panicked and pushed for every point. I knew we had a special group from top to bottom at the beginning of the season.”
On Friday, UK posted after posting its second-highest smallbore score of the season, 2345, and headed into air rifle with an 18-point advantage. The Wildcats then shot 2372 in air rifle to combine for its highest aggregate score of the season at 4717. Of its 23 seasons making the field at the championships, UK has 13 top-three finishes. The Wildcats last won the title in 2011.
Larsen, whose father traveled from Norway to watch him win the air rifle championship, shot the fourth-highest score (596) in the team portion following his top 592 in smallbore for an 1188 aggregate score. In the final, Larsen trailed at first before storming back to shoot a 249.4. The freshman is the first Wildcat to win the individual air rifle NCAA title since Connor Davis in 2014.
“Henrik’s infusion helped a lot this season,” Mullins added. “To win a national title as a freshman, that’s big. He’s working to be a world-class athlete. Having him on the squad has helped push some people and gave them confidence throughout the course of the year. I couldn’t ask for any more from him.”
Carr just missed the air rifle final by two shots, but still managed to post a 593 – her third-highest score this season. In fact, it was freshman Hailee Sigmon (595), who finished eighth in air rifle and edged Carr for the final spot. Billy Azzinaro and Cathryn Papasodora shot in the second relay on Saturday and pushed the pressure aside as they stay composed to fire 587 and 588, respectively, to help clinch for the Cats.
TCU shot 4708 to claim third, while Murray State fired 4684 and Air Force fired 4669 to round out the top five.
UK’s focus, change of preparation, and togetherness throughout the year heavily came into play and helped pave the way to the trophy.
“Throughout the course of the year, it’s been about redefining how we compete and enhancing our culture,” Mullins said. “We switched up practice this year to two days per week with the kids getting ready on the range at 6:15 a.m. Our focus coming into the tournament was to just do us. It was just a matter of trying to figure out how to get everyone to compete and post the numbers we wanted on the same day.
“In terms of the teamwork – this is an individual sport, but when you get to this tournament, everyone wants it for the team. It was a team effort from start to finish, including the parents, support staff, strength and conditioning and everyone involved in the program. Even some of the other coaches in our department like Nick Mingione and Rachel Lawson sent us videos congratulating us. It really showed their support and how much they care about the kids. To me, that’s the best thing about being a Wildcat and having the culture that we have – you feel the pride in it. This (championship) was for the Kentucky Wildcats, not just Kentucky Rifle.”
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