Husker women shooting for championship

Janine Dutton, a member of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln rifle team, steadies her aim at UNL’s indoor range.

Story and photo by Matthew Butts, NewsNetNebraska

In the basement of the Military and Naval Sciences building, not far from the 90,000 seats and screaming fans of Memorial Stadium, eight young women spend each morning honing their shot, hoping to bring home the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s next national championship.

Many have never heard of the Nebraska rifle team, let alone know that they’re any good, but Coach Morgan Hicks has helped turn this group into one of the strongest in the nation. They have made it to the NCAA championships twice in the four years Hicks has been at the helm, and finished just short the other two. Only the top eight teams in the country are allowed to compete in the championships, so it’s quite a feat to even get there.

But just getting there isn’t enough for these women. With three returning seniors and two juniors, the team is full of leadership and experience.

“The women are very motivated this year,” Hicks said. “We want to make the championships. We have good returners and we’ve grown as a team.”

Junior Janine Dutton said that for all the talent on the team, chemistry is its greatest strength.

“We get along better than we ever did in the two seasons before this. It’s a lot more cohesive this year,” she said. “There’s only one coach, but eight people. If I see a teammate struggle with something, I can help without them getting upset.”

She noted that a little mutual respect can mean the difference between friendly advice and unbearable nagging.

Hicks understands the importance of team chemistry and will recruit based on it.

“When you spend 20 hours a week together, when you’re that close, it takes its toll,” she said. “I look for girls who are compatible with our team. Nobody would want to be here if it was filled with drama.”

In addition to chemistry, Hicks looks for players who can shoot under pressure. For those who compete nationally, she considers their ranking.

UNL’s team has only one players from Nebraska; the rest hail from all over the country, including Alaska, Montana, and Michigan. Hicks said Nebraska seems to offer fewer recruits because trap shooting is more popular than rifle.

Despite having a nationally roster with plenty of talent, the team still gets little recognition. And Hicks attributes that to a lack of understanding about the sport. Because shooting a gun isn’t considered a feminine activity, people are often surprised to hear the team is comprised of women.

“Whenever we travel, we get looks like ‘Are you soccer or softball?’ There’s a misconception that women can’t shoot, but we compete against men,” Hicks said. The collegiate level is the only level of the sport in which women and men compete against each other. For Title IX reasons, the Husker team is comprised solely of women.

There’s also the misconception that shooting isn’t a true sport, but Hicks said that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Shooting takes a lot of physical ability. We have to be in complete control of our bodies. We shoot between heartbeats. We have to watch what we eat and it’s a lot of work to carry a 12 to 14 pound gun around for four hours.”

There’s a mental component to the matches, too. Each member of the team participates in both small bore and air rifle. At competitions, they are tasked with taking 60 shots within a specific period of time. In air rifle, the limit is 65 minutes; in small bore, it is two hours. Points are cumulative and are awarded depending on which part of the target is hit. In both cases, 10 is the maximum number of points one can earn per shot, resulting in a perfect score of 600. This means that each participant is trying to keep steady enough, and maintain enough focus, to shoot an area the size of a period 60 times in a row during the course of one to two hours, only to switch weapons and repeat.

“That is like asking a quarterback to throw the perfect pass 60 times a game,” Hicks said.

And making the pressure more intense: Every individual score goes to the entire team. If one person fails, they all do.

Despite its high expectations, the team has gotten off to a slow start this season. Hicks said matches on the road are more difficult, so she expects the team to do better when it returns home.

Team members say they didn’t take up the sport for recognition; they started shooting for the love of the game.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have big aspirations.

“I want to go to the NCAA championships,” Dutton said. I want to go so bad.”