SPARTANBURG, S.C. – The Southern Conference will add rifle as its 21st varsity sport for the 2016-17 academic year, Commissioner John Iamarino announced Wednesday. Full members The Citadel, VMI and Wofford will be joined by associate members UAB, Georgia Southern and North Georgia to form a six-member league for the co-educational sport.
The SoCon will become just the second Division I league to sponsor rifle, joining the Ohio Valley Conference, and will conduct an annual conference championship including the air rifle and smallbore disciplines to determine the league champion. The SoCon previously sponsored rifle from 1956-85, with The Citadel winning a league-best 10 team titles and VMI claiming two.
“We’re very pleased to provide the benefits of conference affiliation to these six programs,” Iamarino said. “Rifle is a unique sport and the SoCon looks forward to providing a championship experience for the skilled young men and women who participate.”
The NCAA conducts a combined men’s and women’s championship with no regard for NCAA division each March. Participating schools may enter an all-men’s team, an all-women’s team or a mixed team of men and women. As of the 2015-16 season, 29 schools sponsor rifle at the NCAA level.
The Citadel, Georgia Southern, North Georgia and Wofford each comes to the SoCon from the Southeastern Air Rifle Conference (SEARC), a collective of schools and club teams that conducts regular-season competition and a championship each year. VMI comes to the SoCon after competing in the Mid-Atlantic Rifle Conference (MAC), a 14-member league composed of five NCAA squads and nine non-NCAA teams, and UAB is currently unaffiliated with a conference.
North Georgia and VMI are tied for No. 20 nationally in the latest edition of the Collegiate Rifle Coaches Association rankings, released Dec. 9. All six incoming squads have completed competition for the fall and will resume in January.
UAB (mixed team)
UAB’s rifle program has its origins as a club team before it became an NCAA squad in 1992. First competing as a mixed program before becoming a women’s team and adding scholarships in 1997, the team is mixed again beginning this season. Head coach Lori Goodwin has been involved with the program for more than 20 years, first as a student-athlete before becoming head coach upon her graduation in 1995. The Blazers competed in the Great Midwest Conference and then Conference USA before both dropped rifle and have competed as an independent team since then.
The Citadel (mixed and women’s teams)
Returning to a league it dominated for nearly two decades, The Citadel’s rifle program claimed SoCon team titles in 1959, 1961-63, 1968-70, and 1972-74 and produced the league’s inaugural individual champion in 1956. Now sponsoring a mixed team as well as a women’s team, the Bulldogs made the move back from club team to an intercollegiate squad in 2001 and has been under the direction of coach William Smith for the last 15 years. The Citadel, which has hosted the last four SEARC Championship at its Inouye Marksmanship Center, saw current sophomore Colton Poole and junior Patrick Meyer compete at USA Shooting’s National Junior Olympics at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in May. The Bulldogs have won three SEARC titles, with the last coming in 2011.
Georgia Southern (women’s team)
Georgia Southern added women’s rifle in 2013-14, initially competing in solely air rifle before adding smallbore the following season. GSU, which was a full member of the Southern Conference from 1991-2014 before departing for the Sun Belt, dedicated its new home facility, the 30,000 square-foot Shooting Sports Education Center, in October. The facility, which is open to the public, is a joint venture with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and features a 16-lane, 25-meter firing range; a 16-lane, 25-meter archery center; and two training/seminar rooms. The Eagles are led by first-year head coach James Riggs.
North Georgia (mixed team)
An NCAA Division II school located in Dahlonega, Ga., North Georgia traces its rifle roots back to 1873, when the former North Georgia College and State University was founded. Now known as the University of North Georgia after a 2013 merger with Gainesville State College, UNG is one of six senior military colleges in the United States, along with The Citadel and VMI. Head coach Tori Kostecki, in her fifth year at the helm of the program, competed for UNG from 2007-11 and won individual air rifle and team national titles as a senior when UNG was a club team. She became the program’s first full-time coach when it achieved permanent NCAA standing in 2011 and has guided the squad to top-20 rankings in five of the nine national polls so far this season. The Nighthawks won five SEARC titles as a club team, doing so each year from 1996-1999 and again in 2001, and have been runners-up at the SEARC Championship in each of the last two seasons.
VMI (mixed and women’s teams)
Like The Citadel, VMI’s rifle squad rejoins the league it called home during the SoCon’s initial foray into the sport. The Keydets, who now field a mixed team as well as a women’s team, won SoCon team titles in 1964 and 1971 and have competed in the Mid-Atlantic Rifle Conference since the 1990-91 season. VMI won the league’s smallbore titles in the expert division in each of the last two years at the conference championship under the direction of fifth-year coach Lt. Col. Bill Bither. The Keydets’ mixed squad was ranked No. 19 in the Nov. 2 CRCA poll, breaking into the top 20 for the first time in program history.
Wofford (mixed team)
Wofford’s rifle team achieved varsity status in 2004 and has been under the direction of coach Randy Hall since then. The Terriers finished third at the 2015 SEARC Championship, earning most-improved-team honors, while then-junior Zoe Kloth was named most improved shooter. Wofford’s program dates back to the 1920s, when its ROTC program fielded a club team.
The Southern Conference, in its 95th season of intercollegiate competition, is a national leader in emphasizing the development of the student-athlete and helping build lifelong leaders and role models. The conference has been on the forefront of innovation and originality in developing creative solutions to address issues facing intercollegiate athletics. From establishing the first conference basketball tournament (1921) to tackling the issues of freshman eligibility (1922) to developing women’s championships (1984) to becoming the first conference to install the 3-point goal in basketball (1980), the Southern Conference has been a pioneer. The Southern Conference is the nation’s fifth-oldest NCAA Division I collegiate athletic association.
The conference currently consists of 10 full-time members in six states throughout the Southeast and sponsors 20 varsity sports and championships that produce participants for NCAA Division I Championships.