AKRON, Ohio — It's a sport unfamiliar to some but one that has become a staple at the University of Akron—rifle. The university's team has grown in talent over the past few years, competing with the likes of Ole Miss, Navy, Air Force and other schools you might be more likely to expect to have rifle programs.
That talent has culminated in a NCAA Rifle Championship bid in 2020 and now, with a team full of sharp-shooters, the Zips are looking to push their way back into the championships. It's a goal more important to them than ever.
Newt Engle, the team's head coach, has seen the school's program grow in the years he's been leading the team. Once having to scour for recruits, Engle is now having to turn talented young shooters away.
"We have people from all over the nation, actually all over the world. We're talking to people in Israel, in Germany and Switzerland and Norway that are interested in coming to the University of Akron to be part of the shooting program," Engle said. "It's a blessing and a curse, to where the blessing is we don't have to go out looking. The curses are so many people that want to come here that I have to learn how to say no to quite a few of them because we can only take three or four people per year."
Those few talented recruits who do make the team and chose Akron have helped create a team that is now No. 10 in the NCAA Rifle rankings. Athletes like Samantha Schultz, who chose Akron because not only did it have a strong rifle program—but the team is coed.
"I like that everyone's together. We're all one unit. There's no advantage, girl versus guy. It's just everybody standing up on the line, whoever is the best shooter is going to come out on top. And I really like that," Schultz said.
Schultz grew up around guns with her dad working as an Indiana police officer and her grandpa serving in the Air Force. She turned that into competition at summer camp one year where she learned about Olympic-style shooting. From there, the sport became a passion.
"I just really fell in love with it and realized it was something that you could actually go to school for on an athletic scholarship and proceeded to pursue it over the next couple of years and ended up here," Schultz said. "I wanted somewhere that I could compete at the top level amongst the top people."
So Schultz chose Akron.
The sport she competes in isn't simple. It's not just firing a gun. In the Air Rifle competition Schultz was practicing on Wednesday, a shooter stands in position, taking 60 shots to be scored by accuracy of the shot. It's an hour-and-a-half of shooting as precisely as possible—and the target is shockingly small.
"You're searching for the absolute perfection of a shot. The 10.9. You want to get the X right in the middle," Schultz explained. "The size of the actual "10" at the end of that point is the same size as a period in 12-point font at the end of a sentence.
Yes, about that big.
It's what makes the sport so impressive, and what Akron is doing in their competitions even more so. Shooters like Lex Kirk, a sophomore with a goal of a job in the FBI, had a recent competition that had her coach raving.
"She is one of one of my top shooters...Where we have a possible 600 points, just last weekend she fired a 595 standing. That means she hit that shot in the center of the target 55 times. She only missed a shot five times. And when she missed it, she barely missed it," Engle said. "So this is just shy of perfection. And that's the kind of talent that Lex brings to this team."
Kirk recalled the match and said a few shots in she knew she was on her mark.
"It just felt good. Like the whole match, whole air match just felt really good, like the easiest thing in the world," Kirk said. "Felt good. It's one point off of my personal best."
Kirk's sharp shooting was evident in practice, distracted by having to explain what she was doing and why during an interview and still hitting 10s on target.
Her even-keeled mentality is one shared by the team. They aren't to high, they're not too low. They are riding their wave of talent and taking it into every competition this year. This year is their first full season back from COVID-19, which hindered their ability to travel and compete.
With a full year back, they're staying focused but keeping one goal in mind.
"That we're looking for is to break into the top eight. And the reason is, is for the NCAA Championships, they only take the top eight teams in the nation to the NCAA Championships," Engle shared. "I mentioned before that it's important to us this year and the reason is because we're hosting the NCAA Championships right here in the arena on campus.
On March 10-11, the James A. Rhodes Arena, home of Zips basketball—better known as the JAR, will be transformed into a shooting range for the NCAA Rifle Championships. If the Zips rifle team can keep firing on all cylinders, they have a chance to break into that top eight and secure a bid to compete in the championships here at home.
"That's our goal and we've been working really hard for that. It's within reach and we kind of have a plan to try and make it happen," Engle said. "We're the second championship ever hosted by the University of Akron. The first championship was back in 2016 and that was the NCAA Rifle Championship again. So, it's actually full circle. We did it in 2016. It's going full circle."
To get there, the Zips will need to outshoot some schools in the coming competition, starting this weekend as they have a double header—a Saturday match against No. 5 Ole Miss and two Sunday matchups with No. 3 West Virginia and No. 11 Ohio State.
The Zips have a shot at hitting their target of a championship bid, and that has excited the team. But as Engle said, this is now the expectation of the program—and he's confident they'll stand up to the challenge.
"My kids were looking at me saying 'Coach, coach, we're fighting, we're running with the big dogs,'" Engle recalled. "[I said] 'No, no, no, no. You are the big dogs."
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