The most dominant NCAA Division I athletics team at TCU isn’t Gary Patterson’s men in pads or Jim Schlossnagle’s boys of summer. You may not know them yet, but they’re girls, and they have guns.
Rifle is not a big-money spectator sport that garners the kind of attention other teams receive on campus and in national news, but the irrefutable currency of the sports world is national titles, and TCU women’s rifle boasts two national championships.
These women won the national championships in 2010 –– the first exclusively female team to win the competition –– and then, surprise, they did it again in 2012. As the lone TCU team to win an NCAA championship in this century, the Horned Frogs were ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into the 2017 championship, having won all 14 matches they competed in during the 2016-2017 season.
Rifle, technically designated as a men’s sport by the NCAA, has been co-educational (men and women competing together) since 1980. This competition was previously known as the intercollegiate rifle championship and was sponsored by the National Rifle Association from 1905 to 1979. Schools may create men’s, women’s, or co-ed squads, but there is no separate championship or designation for awards based on gender. TCU has trained a women’s-specific squad since the 1999-2000 season.
Matches are very different from going to the firing ranges that most Fort Worthians are familiar with. Competitors’ rifles don’t resemble weapons in the traditional sense –– the guns are thought of as individual precision target instruments. The concerns of a rifle competitor are similar to those of an elite endurance athlete. Shooters work tirelessly to dial in their ideal heart rates, breathing, and psychological states. In football, inches matter. In rifle, millimeters separate pretenders from champions.
As a two-day competition, each day hosts one event that affords a team 240 shots, worth 10 points per attempt. Rifle has two events: air-rifle, in which each competitor fires a .177 caliber lead pellet from a standing position at 10 meters from his or her target for 60 shots; and smallbore three-position rifle. Each competitor in smallbore fires a .22 caliber bullet from his or her rifle in the standing, kneeling, and prone positions from 50 meters, 20 shots from each position, for a total of 60 shots. A perfect total for each event is a 600, 1,200 per shooter for the match. Teams field shooters who compete for the highest aggregate team total, and shooters compete for the best individual scores. A perfect team total is 4,800; the best four shooters’ scores count towards the total.
The national championships were in Columbus, Ohio, hosted by The Ohio State University. TCU’s Casey Lutz, a freshman from Meridian, Id., took home an individual award with a bronze medal in the smallbore event. Lutz’s teammate, Rachel Garner, a sophomore from Celina, Texas, finished just off the podium, in fourth place in smallbore. The Frogs were squarely in second place after Day 1, trailing the West Virginia Mountaineers by only wo points after the team smallbore competition.
The next day was dedicated to the air rifle competition, with the aforementioned Garner and junior strategic communication major Mindy Miles from Weatherford, Texas, reaching the individual finals. Garner reached the podium on Day 2, taking home the bronze for the Frogs in individual air rifle, while Miles finished fourth. Still, the Frogs fell short of the consistently dominant Mountaineers by just 17 total points, 4,723 to 4,706, to be exact. The difference was even smaller in 2016, when the shooting Frogs were behind West Virginia by only nine points, one shot of 480. The margins are so thin that targets aren’t even scored by humans but electronically using advanced sonar equipment built into the targets.
At the end of the second day, the TCU women’s rifle team capped a fine season by capturing their second consecutive national runner-up title. The Mountaineers (who include sophomore Ginny Thrasher, winner of an Olympic gold medal in women’s 10m air rifle in last year’s Games) remain the juggernauts of NCAA rifle, capturing a record 19 of the 38 team titles that have been awarded since rifle became a sponsored sport. West Virginia has won the team championship for the past five consecutive seasons, gobbling up every one since the Frogs’ last victory in 2012.
Even though the TCU women’s rifle team did not meet their goal of a third national championship, they are two-time national champions and two-time national runners-up in their sport, which makes these women the most decorated athletes on a campus that places value on sport and winning.
The next time a sports debate breaks out, sharpshoot it with your knowledge of the most precise Horned Frogs team of the century.