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The Lone Rangers


Verena Zaisberger holds a competitive rifle in her hand while looking off frame.

Written by Diana Mazzella
Photograph by Brian Persinger

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Verena Zaisberger was in a car driving between Morgantown and Lexington, Ky., when the 2020 NCAA rifle championship was canceled hours before it was scheduled to begin. She and her teammates had been on their way to cheer for the Mountaineers shooting in the competition. Instead, the No. 3 Mountaineer rifle team was headed home.

“It’s a massive shame to see the season end like this, to be less than 24 hours from competing at the NCAA Championships, it is heartbreaking for the team,” Rifle Head Coach Jon Hammond said in a statement at the time. “This will motivate us all for next year.” 

Like everyone else on the planet, they had to reassess what they were going to do with the next year. When athletes have to grapple with new situations, they see sports psychologists. When that new situation is a global pandemic, they see sports psychologists over Zoom. 

“We were talking about: What kind of situation are we in?” said Zaisberger, a senior majoring in music and French. “Just accepting that we are living in a world right now where things are a little weird, where matches can get canceled either because, well, the season’s just getting canceled all together or another team can’t compete because they had too many COVID cases. 

“And it just affected our overall living in the sense that our team, most of us are living together, so we were trying to be smart about contact tracing and stuff like that. I feel like it wasn’t really affecting our technical shooting practice too much, but more our mental approach to competing and also our way of living.” 

Hammond said that the team had challenges but the experience was a lesson in perseverance. “It’s been a challenging year for the whole world. At the end of the day, they’re here doing a sport that they love doing, and there’s a lot more serious things going on in the world. 

“I think perspective is probably the biggest thing that was maybe taken away and learning to be patient with situations and really accepting what you can and can’t control.” 

As the global health situation worsened in the summer, Athletics decided that rifle would not compete in fall 2020. Several varsity teams had scheduling changes and canceled matches. 

But there was something the rifle team could do that fall aside from compete against teammates. They competed in a handful of virtual matches against conference opponents. While the NCAA decided not to count virtual competitions, they had a valuable role in the season. 

The rifle team laying on mats pointing rifles toward targets at their range.

The rifle team took part in the Great American Rifle Conference championship, which was virtual. They won with a score of 2381. (Photo Provided)

On Oct. 10, 2020, the team observed match-day rules in the range for a competition against Memphis. All 10 players lined up at the range and the computer recorded their scores. In Memphis, the same thing was happening around the same time. The Mountaineers went on to play virtual matches against unseen opponents Army, N.C. State and Nebraska. 

“We had the autonomy in our conference to say, well we still want the kids to have a conference season as it were,” Hammond said. “This was going to give our team members, our kids, basically some semblance of competition rather than just having a whole semester of practice.” 

“While we don’t see them and we don’t know really what they’re doing, we knew on that day we were coming in at that time to shoot a match.” 

Once January 2021 began, the team was back to traditional home and away matches. 

Zaisberger said the team was already sedate, hitting the books instead of parties with a team average GPA of 3.5. But they worked harder to keep each other safe and remain eligible for competitions, driving to matches instead of flying. They concentrated on making a bubble. And it changed their dynamic. 

“The feeling of family this year was really intense with this team,” she said. “And I thought it was so amazing because we were so motivated to spend a lot of time at the range together and push ourselves and practice matches. I felt like it really showed because we had a lot of depth.” 

Since its founding in 1951, the WVU rifle team has become the proving ground for Olympians and college coaches and has the most NCAA titles – 19 – of any rifle team in the U.S. and of any varsity team at WVU. The team draws students from around the world, including Zaisberger, from Austria, and teammates Tal Engler of Israel and Akihito Shimizu of Japan. 

The team has come out the other side of COVID-19 stronger. In the post-season, the team won their conference championship and placed fourth in the 2021 NCAA finals, finishing behind Kentucky, TCU and Ole Miss. 

There was one major win that they captured. Nine of the 10 players on the team were named All-Americans, something that hadn’t happened since about the ’80s, Hammond says. 

“I’m not going to say they never complained,” Hammond said. “But they were very good about dealing with the situation and coming in and appreciating what they did have and working hard each day, and actually achieving a lot at the end of the season.” 

The rifle team poses for a picture wearing blue tracksuits with five women seated and two women and three men standing.

The 2020 rifle team. (Photo Provided)