Within view of Ohio Stadium and the Schottenstein Center, a reigning individual national champion, a Hall of Fame coach, and an undefeated team are all preparing to compete at nationals for the second consecutive year.
The Ohio State pistol team set a school-record overall team score at the Midwest Collegiate Pistol Sectionals, held Jan. to 31 Feb. 1, to remain undefeated this season. Now, OSU is in its final weeks of practice before the 2014 NRA Intercollegiate Pistol Championships March 8-13.
In 15 years as the head coach, James Sweeney has led the pistol team to five national titles and coached seven student-athletes to 23 NRA collegiate individual championships, including senior Joe Totts, the 2013 National Individual Champion in the standard pistol event.
Gene Smith, athletic director and university vice president, said Sweeney is a great teacher and an icon he is proud to have in his athletic department.
“Jim is awesome. Jim has been in it for so long and he’s just a great human being,” Smith said. “He does it the right way, he understands what our goals are — to help young people get their degrees.”
Sweeney, who was inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame last year, said he is confident this year’s team can add to his already long list of champions.
“All we have to do is shoot our average and we’ll at least be on the podium, if not win it,” Sweeney said.
Despite the program’s winning past, some members of the team said when their classmates hear they are on the pistol team, usually involves elicited reactions like, “That’s a real thing?” But Sweeney said the team is aware it is one of the least recognized sports at OSU and that it is comfortable that way.
“We shoot in relative obscurity because we love the sport and we’re very fond of each other,” Sweeney said. “We’re a nice tight-knit team and shooting in obscurity doesn’t bother us. I’m proud of my team, that they don’t need the adulation of 100,000 people to try their best.”
Smith said even though the athletic department makes sure it does everything it can to make every sport they sponsor successful, it is up to the program to generate interest in the sport.
“We do not have a marketing program that is designed to do that. We let the people who are interested in finding and following that sport follow it,” Smith said. “Pistol is a unique sport and as far as fan attendance in Converse Hall, it is very difficult to have fans in that environment, so we don’t promote it that way.”
As he prepares to defend his title in standard pistol, Totts said he is pleased with where he and the team stand right now in terms of OSU athletics.
“I’m not real sure where exactly we fit in. We’re not well-known, that’s for sure,” Totts said. “I’m happy to be off in the corner doing my own thing. It’s unfortunate we’re not well recognized, but it’s understandable because if you’ve ever watched us shoot, it’s not exciting to watch.”
Regardless of how obscure or unexciting the pistol team might be, the program’s five team championships as a team count toward OSU’s total number of team championships. Also, because it is a varsity sport, every time a pistol team member wins a national championship, Smith gets an extra week of base pay, more than $18,000. Smith said even though they are not in the NCAA, the pistol team’s status as a varsity sport makes it equal to every other sport at OSU.
“They are a varsity sport for us. They compete in their own conference, they just don’t have a NCAA Championship,” Smith said. “They’re not a club sport. They have scholarships, they actually go out and recruit talent.”
Sweeney said the support of the athletic department is a major influence on the program’s success, making it a mutually beneficial relationship.
“OSU gives us almost unlimited resources — so we have the guns, the bullets, the uniforms, the travel. The resources are there,” Sweeney said.
Junior Clay Beckholt said the Lt. Hugh W. Wylie Range in Converse Hall and the equipment provided by OSU gives the team an upper hand against its competition.
“I think having such a great facility at our disposal and being able to shoot a hundred rounds a day definitely helps. Not a lot of people can say that,” Beckholt said.
OSU is the only non-military school in the country to offer scholarships for shooters, an advantage assistant coach Donna Knisley said allows her and Sweeney to get some of the best junior shooters to come to OSU. Knisley said the majority of the team’s opponents are military academies that attract a large number of talented shooters.
“We don’t have as many walk-ons as we used to because we’ve been able to recruit ones that have prior shooting experience,” Knisley said. “In the military academies, they are required to do some sort of physical education or recreation, so a lot of them choose to shoot.”
Totts said his only concern right now is bringing home another championship.
“I constantly try to improve. A perfect score has never been shot so you strive towards that,” Totts said. “I know how to shoot, so I just have to not think about shooting and go do it.”