In order to increase awareness of the sport and to provide insight to juniors looking to continue their marksmanship careers into college and beyond, the CMP periodically highlights some of the nation’s current collegiate rifle programs. Stay tuned this week as we feature the coach and athletes of the University of Tennessee at Martin Rifle Team!
Q&A with Athletes and Coaches: University of Tennessee at Martin
Throughout its history in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC), the University of Tennessee at Martin has accumulated nearly 90 all-time postseason wins, including over 30 All-OVC air rifle honors, 24 All-OVC smallbore honors and more than 30 combined OVC All-Newcomer air rifle and smallbore honors. The team has also cultivated six at-large participants in the NCAA Championships, two OVC air rifle MVP athletes and six OVC Freshmen of the Year.
Before the Skyhawks came under the direction of current head coach MJ Vowell, the team was led by coach Bob Beard for over 30 years. Beard is the longest-tenured member of the UT Martin athletics department and was inducted into the UT Martin Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014. During his time as coach, Beard earned five OVC Coach of the Year titles. A member of the United States National Guard shooting team for 12 years and a Hall of Fame rifle athlete at Murray State University, Beard now acts as a volunteer assistant coach for the UT Martin Skyhawks.
College Coach Questions
Name: MJ Vowell
Hometown: Louisville, KY
Were you an athlete before coaching? I was a team member at UT Martin from 1985-1988 under Coach Bob Beard; assigned to the U.S. Army Marksmanship International Rifle Section 1991-1993; participated on the women’s team for the National Matches at Camp Perry each summer and a total of four Counseil Internationale du Sport Miltaire (CISM) games. I have a BS in Natural Resources Management (UT Martin 1988) and several military schools and professional accreditations. Retired from the U.S. Army in 2014.
Favorite reason for coaching? The opportunity to “give back” to a program that afforded me many opportunities.
What is a day as your athlete like? We get up EARLY and practice before classes even start. I started this a few years ago, and it has worked well for the student-athlete (once they get used to the schedule). I get their minds “fresh” before the academic day weighs them down. At the end of the season, I always review the early practice schedule with the team, and they continue to prefer it. Once practice is over, the rest of the day belongs to them and a focus on academics.
What is your biggest challenge as a coach? Translating the mental approach to a practice or a match. I was an athlete, so I can remember what “right” feels like. It’s not always easy to put that into words.
Advice for juniors wanting to compete in college and for college athletes and graduating college seniors? Participate in as many matches as you can to get your name out there and seek out a coach, even if you must video call sometimes. Reach out to college coaches early and visit their campus.
Graduating college seniors – apply lessons learned as a collegiate athlete (leadership, patience, problem solving, service to others, etc.) to your professional and personal life going forward.
Any additional comments/stories/advice you’d like to add? Enjoy being in the moment, whether it is preparing to be a collegiate athlete, a recent college graduate or seeking personal and professional excellence. Best wishes for your future success!
College Athlete #1 Questions
Name: Rachel Sprague
Hometown/Junior Team: DuBois, Pennsylvania. I competed for my high school as well as our club team, DuBois Rifle and Pistol Club.
What is your major? My major is Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Veterinary Technology. I plan to continue my education to earn my license to become a veterinary technician. My favorite class I have taken was animal anatomy and physiology.
Outside of rifle, are you part of any other organizations or clubs? I’m involved in the UTM Vet Science club.
How old were you when you got involved in rifle? I was 10 years old when my father had me take my NRA Safety Course, and I eventually started competing in small local competitions.
Favorite rifle and stage? I prefer shooting smallbore, and my favorite position to shoot in is prone.
What do you do outside of rifle to train and better yourself? Outside of rifle, I often refer to “Bullseye Mind” by Raymond Prior to reflect and train my mind to become a better athlete mentally. Before a match, I always play a sudoku puzzle to get myself focused.
Future plans/goals for rifle and life? I plan to continue shooting. I would like to return to Camp Perry for the outdoor smallbore National Matches and shoot alongside my dad and sister. Career-wise, I plan to work at an animal hospital and eventually earn my veterinary technician license.
College Athlete #2 Questions
Name: Nick Fares
Hometown/Junior Team: I am from Springboro, Ohio. I would meet with a few other juniors at a local range where a couple former athletes and coaches would help us train.
What is your major? My major is Business Management. I want to be able to run my own business but also have a degree that would allow me to work for several different kinds of companies if I wanted to. My favorite classes have been economics and a supply chain management class.
Outside of rifle, are you part of any other organizations or clubs? I am one of our team’s representatives in the student athlete advisory committee.
How old were you when you got involved in rifle? I was about 15 when I started shooting smallbore, but I was involved in other shooting sports before that.
Favorite rifle and stage? I look forward to air rifle more than I do smallbore because it is less stressful.
What do you do outside of rifle to train and better yourself? Outside of rifle, I pay attention to caffeine intake and plan to sleep well the nights before shooting. I also make sure I eat and drink prior to shooting.
Future plans/goals for rifle and life? By the end of my college rifle career, I would like to make the NCAA championship as an individual in at least one rifle. I would also like to compete in some highpower matches after college to stay involved in shooting sports.
Any additional comments/stories/advice you’d like to add? If you want to shoot in college, I recommend attending the junior smallbore & air rifle camp at Camp Perry. I went twice and I consider that a big step in getting me to where I am now.
College Athlete #3 Questions
Name: Joseph Kovach
Hometown/Junior Team: Bedford, Pennsylvania. Shot for Everett High School Rifle Team.
What is your major? I am a civil engineering major. I chose this major because I want to be involved with the transportation aspect of civil engineering and work for a major railroad. My favorite class currently would have to be trig.
Outside of rifle, are you part of any other organizations or clubs? I am a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity.
How old were you when you got involved in rifle? I was 13 years old in 8th grade when I started shooting.
Favorite rifle and stage? My favorite is the .22 because I like being able to switch positions. My favorite position would be standing.
What do you do outside of rifle to train and better yourself? I watch what I eat, especially when it comes to food with high sugar content and typically avoid sugary beverages like soda.
Future plans/goals for rifle and life? My goal for rifle is to improve each year and shoot a personal record at least once per year. My goals for life are to graduate college and work at one of the major railroads as an engineer.
College Athlete #4 Questions
Name: Alayna Walther
Hometown/Junior Team: Avella, Pennsylvania; Frazier Simplex
What is your major? My major is agricultural engineering. I chose this major because I love agriculture and math! My favorite class is any agriculture class, especially the ones that allow the class to be outside.
How old were you when you got involved in rifle? I was eight or nine years old when I was introduced to rifle shooting competitively.
Favorite rifle and stage? My favorite rifle is .22, and standing is my favorite position.
What do you do outside of rifle to train and better yourself? Outside of rifle, I workout a few days a week and try to meditate throughout the week and before matches or practice.
Future plans/goals for rifle and life? My plan for this year is to be in the 580’s for smallbore consistently and 590’s consistently for air rifle.
Any additional comments/stories/advice you’d like to add? Being on a sports team while in college is the best thing a college student could be a part of. From the first day I moved in, I had teammates who I could rely on and would always have my back, which is true to this day.
— By Ashley Dugan, CMP Staff Writer
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