SPARTANBURG, S.C. – The Southern Conference will add rifle as its 21st varsity sport for the 2016-17 academic year, Commissioner John Iamarino announced on Dec. 9. The University of North Georgia will join the Citadel, Virginia Military Institute, Wofford College, Georgia Southern University, and the University of Alabama Birmingham to form a six-member league for the co-educational sport.
UNG 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.
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.”
Head Coach Tori Kostecki, in her fifth year at the helm of UNG's rifle 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 mixed 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.
UNG is an NCAA Division II school and is one of six senior military colleges in the United States, along with The Citadel and VMI.
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, UNG and Wofford each come 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.
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.