March 11, 2010

By Troy Phillips
Special to NCAA.com

FORT WORTH, Texas - Maybe it was a good day last week at the TCU Range, because Horned Frogs rifle coach Karen Monez had her "full arsenal" of bad gun puns on display.

After three appearances in the NCAA Rifle Championships, Monez acknowledged recent recruiting success has helped "reload" TCU's program, perhaps the best of the NCAA's six all-women teams. Among TCU's five qualifiers for the 31st NCAA Championships, scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Fort Worth, are three freshmen - Monez's "young guns."

"They're that caliber of shooters," Monez said, looking slightly evil.

But beyond the jokes, Monez' conviction shines through: The Horned Frogs want to become the first all-women's team to claim an NCAA championship - and TCU's first title overall. The NCAA sponsors 38 rifle programs in the only sport where men and women compete as teammates and opponents.

But it won't be an easy road for TCU. Defending and 14-time champion West Virginia and 10-time champion Alaska-Fairbanks, both coed squads, enter Friday's smallbore preliminaries as traditional favorites.

The Frogs hosted last year's championships and again enlist Daniel-Meyer Coliseum - the school's basketball arena - as the site of Saturday's air rifle prelims and finals. Prior to the 2008-09 championships, competitions were held at smaller ranges on each campus. The larger venue allows the event move more quickly.

The championship format includes eight teams of five shooters, along with a handful of individuals from schools that didn't qualify full teams. Friday's 9 a.m. (ET) smallbore (.22 caliber) and Saturday's 10 a.m. air rifle prelims will have roughly 40 shooters, each allotted 60 shots scored by TCU's electronic targeting system. From this, the smallbore and air rifle team champions are determined.

Both days' finals (7:15 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday) include the top eight from the preliminaries in a 10-shot final to determine both NCAA individual champions.

"They're all equals," Monez said of the men and women. "The ability to run, jump or lift is not a factor. It's how still or relaxed you are. It's not about muscle strength."

For their experience at this level, TCU freshmen Caitlin Morrissey, Sarah Scherer and Sarah Beard are good at being still. All three hit their NCAA championship-qualifying "targets" in their first collegiate seasons. Monez might (but didn't) say TCU's future is "on-the-mark."

"I grew up shooting mostly by myself," said Morrissey, a Topeka, Kan., native who decided against joining Nebraska's all-women's team (which is closer to home than TCU) after a lifelong love of all things Kansas Jayhawks. "It was cool outshooting the Boy Scouts and winning competitions, but I didn't really train with anyone but my dad. The team aspect [of college rifle] is new to me, and I love it."

Within the sport, assumptions men are superior shooters to women are false or don't widely exist, Morrissey said. Skills like controlled breathing aren't gender-specific.

"No, definitely not," she said. "There are a couple of [men] who right now are, 'Wow, they're shooting really well,' but everybody always says the girls are the better shooters, because they can calm themselves down better. At the end of the day, it's who has the best day, but we like to think we're better than the guys."

Scherer, a Boston-area native and product of the Massachusetts Rifle Association - "America's Oldest Active Gun Club" since its 1875 founding - was one of Monez's best signings in six years. Scherer's brother Stephen, a rifle standout at Army, finished 27th in air rifle at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Sarah Scherer recently qualified for the women's World Championships in Munich in August and has her own Olympic aspirations.

"What do you actually do?" said Scherer, repeating a question she hears often from other TCU athletes or students. "It's fun to share about your sport, especially with other athletes. You see them run, swim, hit a ball or make a basket all the time. It doesn't mean you know the ins and outs and can do what they do.

"Shooting is the same way. You may think you know how to do it, but you don't."

TCU seniors Erin Lorenzen and Simone Riford, the remaining two-fifths of the Frogs' NCAA squad, helped TCU finish third, fifth and fifth in three previous national championships. Their class put TCU on the national youth rifle community's radar and helped Monez sign shooters who now push the program higher.

"These girls are so determined and focused on their goals," said Monez, the gold medalist at the 1979 World Championships in air rifle. "They took it this far in three years and were freshmen the first time we qualified. The new group, they've just pushed the bar up more."