March 13, 2010

By Troy Phillips

Special to NCAA.com

FORT WORTH, Texas - The progress is palpable, especially since TCU has never been this close to winning an NCAA title. Doing so on Saturday won't be easy.

The Horned Frogs trail Alaska-Fairbanks by six points after Friday's smallbore (.22 caliber) portion of the NCAA Rifle Championships at the TCU Range. Alaska-Fairbanks scored 2,320 points to win the NCAA team smallbore title and is the overall leader entering Saturday's air-rifle portion at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.

Friday's smallbore relays (or preliminaries) gave TCU its first individual NCAA rifle champion in the program's history. Currently second after Friday's 2,314 points in smallbore, TCU is in striking distance of winning the overall title.

TCU freshman Sarah Scherer soared through the relays and final to take the smallbore individual trophy with a composite score of 685.0. Alaska-Fairbanks' Patrik Sartz finished second at 682.7, followed by Navy's Chris Burleson in third at 682.5

Scherer, Sartz and West Virginia's Bryant Wallizer all finished atop the smallbore relay standings with an overall 583 out of a possible 600. Those three and five more advanced to the eight-person final, where 10 shots each decided the individual title.

Scherer never lost her nerve during the relay and scored a 102 in the final to easily outshoot runner-up Sartz (99.7). Scherer scored 10.0 or better on seven of her finals attempts, and her 10th and last was a nail - the highest-scoring shot possible of 10.9.

"Shooting is such a mental game when it comes to the finals," said Scherer, a member of the U.S. World Championship team that will compete in Munich, Germany, this summer. "Some people don't like being in first place when you go into it. Sometimes it's harder, but if you can stay focused and control your breathing, it's not that bad."

West Virginia (2,308) is six points back of TCU in third place. Fourth-place Kentucky (2,296) didn't place a shooter in the smallbore final but might need at least two in the air-rifle final to contend for the overall title.

Alaska-Fairbanks, the 10-time NCAA team champion and winner of nine of the last 11 championships held, had no weak links in its smallbore foursome. After Sartz's 583, Cody Rutter shot a 581, followed by Jace Bures (579) and William Galligan (577).

"It's going to be interesting," Alaska-Fairbanks coach Dan Jordan said. "We've got a solid team in the air gun, but West Virginia and TCU are strong. Someone will have to have four good scores to win it."

TCU finished third, fifth and fifth in its three previous NCAA Championship appearances. Freshman Caitlin Morrissey, an air rifle specialist who didn't compete in smallbore Friday, will replace senior Simone Riford in the lineup. With an NCAA title on the line, TCU's four shooters Saturday will include freshmen Scherer, Morrissey and Sarah Beard, and senior Erin Lorenzen, who was fourth overall in smallbore.

"We can do this," Beard said of TCU's chances for the team title. "This is a good position for us. We know what we have to do."

Most NCAA rifle teams include men and women competing together, but six of 38 NCAA programs consist of women only. TCU is trying to become the first all-women's team to win the overall title.

"It was a great first day," TCU coach Karen Monez said. "This is the most talented group of competitors we've ever had. Sarah [Scherer] is just tough mentally, as well as having good technical skills. You could see how much confidence she had in the finals. She just doesn't get rattled."

West Virginia could bounce back strong in air rifle and make a run at its 15th NCAA title. Monez said the margin for error figures again to be slim; two points separated the eight smallbore finalists.

"There will be a lot of top-quality, world-class competitors on the [firing] line," she said. "It's about who can perform at their best on a given day. We all might have goals, but it comes down to performance. Who can make it happen that day?"