Alan Joseph walks past the empty .22 caliber cartridge shells that are scattered about the floor and heads toward the glass-enclosed trophy cases in the back of the room. Here, among the photos of All-Americans and Olympians, shine some of the most coveted pieces of hardware in college athletics: National Collegiate Athletic Association championship trophies.
The trophies are a mixture of medals—one silver, two bronze. The gold one has proven to be a bit elusive. Still, of the 15 varsity sports that the University offers, this is the only spot where such trophies can been seen. The only problem is, hardly anyone sees them. Or knows they were won.
The trophies are the collection of the University’s rifle team, the least known of the school’s athletic programs but arguably its most dominant. From its inconspicuous home on the second floor of the Armory, the rifle team has produced 15 All-Americans and two Olympians. It’s been in the NCAA finals 10 of the last 13 years, finishing second in 2000, fourth in 2001 and third this year.
And, for the most part, it’s gone unnoticed. Which is somewhat understandable. Rifle is an obscure sport practiced by a limited number of universities. Spectators are few. Media members are fewer. Joseph, a quiet man who coaches the team, shrugs off the lack of attention.
“Every university has its unique sport,” he says. “Here, it’s rifle.”
Despite operating far outside the spotlight, the program has prospered greatly, particularly in recent years. This year’s team, for instance, tied or rewrote 11 team and eight individual records, led by junior Thrine Kane and freshman Hannah Kerr.
“Hannah is one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen,” says Joseph. That’s quite a statement, considering Kane shot for the United States in the 2000 Olympics along with Jason Parker, who graduated in 1996 and will be inducted into Xavier’s athletic hall of fame this fall.
In rifle, the objective is to hit the center of a target the size of the bottom of a Styrofoam cup. Each shooter gets 40 shots with a .22 caliber rifle from 50 feet away while standing, kneeling and lying down. A bull’s-eye is worth 10 points, making 400 points a perfect score for each position. Kerr averaged 397.5 from the prone position, 393.42 kneeling and 388.83 standing. She also averaged 389.67 out of a possible 400 in the air rifle category, in which pellets are shot from 33 feet away.
While a good eye is necessary for a bull’s-eye, what’s just as vital is a good brain. To train that area, the team began working with doctoral students in psychology in an effort to improve its mental strength. Rifle, Joseph says, requires great concentration, focus and aptitude.
“Distractions are hard to run away from in rifle,” he says. “It requires a great deal of self-motivation and self-discipline.”
While distractions are sometimes hard to overcome, he says, the upside is that the discipline also weeds out bad students, so rifle members tend to do very well in the classroom. And Xavier’s team is no exception. Every member is on an academic scholarship, and this year’s team had a combined 3.2 grade point average. One member, Sivan Barazani, entered the University with more than 50 advanced placement credits and just graduated after her sophomore year with a psychology degree.
Joseph hasn’t always gotten the pick of the best shooters, though. The rifle team evolved from being a club sport under the ROTC program in the 1980s. When ROTC’s budget constraints threatened to cut the program, Joseph took the idea of making it a varsity sport to the athletic director. He agreed and handed Joseph the keys to the rifle vault along with a tiny budget.
Since then, it’s grown into its own entity—one that no longer resembles its military beginnings.
“As shooters, we don’t think of this as a deadly weapon,” he says. “It’s not about violence. Most of us aren’t into hunting. For us, this is a discipline, a test. Are my focus and balance and eye better than the others?” Lately, they have been. And they have trophies to prove it.