The Navy rifle team was on the verge of its best season yet. Then coronavirus came.
By JOHN EVANS III | The Capital | Published: April 21, 2020
Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See other free reports here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Navy sophomore Gabriella Mayes was at her Rio Rancho, New Mexico home late last month when she got the good news. She had been named a National Rifle Association honorable mention All-American. It marked the second straight season a Midshipmen rifle team member earned postseason honors from the NRA.
It was an award Mayes admitted came as a surprise. More so, it was a bright spot in what has otherwise been a disappointing finish to what was shaping up as one of the best seasons in program history.
“To have the season end the way it did, with not being able to finish," Mayes said, “this definitely was a lift to my spirits."
Everything was looking up for the weekend of March 13-14 when the NCAA championship meet was scheduled to be held. Morale was high as Navy was one of eight schools to qualify.
“The team was peaking and had just (posted) some of our highest scores. Hopes were high and we really were thinking we could improve on last year’s (seventh-place) finish and possibly finish in the top three or four,” said Navy’s third-year head coach Mike Anti, himself a four-time Olympic shooter who won a silver medal at the 2004 Summer Games.
Navy never got the chance. That evening, on March 12, the NCAA canceled all postseason championships due to the growing concern of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was kind of odd,” Mayes said. “On Thursday night, all the teams were in Kentucky and were practicing for the tournament. Then, that night (at 5 p.m.), we were told the competition had been canceled after all that preparation.”
“Our practices were going very well, and we had high expectations. Then suddenly, it’s all over and you don’t get to compete. I had no idea the match would be called. All the teams were there.”
Instead, those eight teams dispersed and returned to their respective campuses. The season was over.
Mayes said she understands the situation and is taking everything “day-to-day." She hasn’t picked up a rifle since March 12 because all her rifles are at the Naval Academy, and she has nothing to practice with.
“We’ve been told (by the state) not to leave our homes,” Mayes said. “We also have a Department of Defense order to stay close (within 150 miles) of our home.”
Mayes’ honor was a deserved distinction, Anti said. She was the team’s Most Valuable Player and cited her leadership skills and vast improvement since she first joined the team team as a walk-on.
Mayes led the Midshipmen during the 2019-20 season in air rifle with an average score of 589.6. That ranks second all-time in program history and she just missed Lisa Kunzelman’s program-record of 589.7, which was set during the 2007-08 campaign.
During the 2019-20 season, Mayes set the program-record for highest air rifle score in an event after she fired a 597 against Nebraska. She had a stretch of six-straight matches with at least a 590 in air rifle.
Mayes finished her sophomore campaign with a 575.8 average in smallbore, which ranked third on the team. She also finished tied for the team lead in aggregate average with a 1,165.4, which was nearly a 12-point improvement from her freshman campaign.
“It’s a huge accomplishment. You have to be among the top shooters in the country,” Anti said. “She was our MVP, our No. 1 in air rifle and No. 2 in smallbore. She was a very outstanding performer all season."
Anti stressed how much work Mayes put into developing after being the team’s fifth-ranked shooter last season.
“She is a winner. She competes to win, she wants to be the best and she has a strong drive. She is outgoing, everybody’s friend,” Anti said. “When she gets on that firing line, she’s very competitor.”
Among Mayes’ biggest accomplishments this season was the 597 out of 600 in air rifle, which Anti said is “a world class score."
In the smallbore competition, Mayes posted a top score that was among the top 15 nationally.
“She came here with very little smallbore experience, most of her competition had been in air rifle,” Anti said. “The effort she’s put into getting better in the smallbore has really paid off. For her it has been practice, practice, practice. It has taken a lot of hard work.”
Mayes said she, as well as her teammates, were shooting their best scores of the season heading into the NCAA championship meet.
“We broke a lot of records this season. We improved. By the last half of the season we knew we were going to do very well,” she said.
Mayes knew she wanted to compete in rifle after committing to the academy and pursued a spot on the team upon arrival in Annapolis. Dale Mayes, who served 31 years and retired as an E-9 Master Chief, wanted his daughter to continue her riflery in college.
“I was a late bloomer. I didn’t start shooting until I was in high school. I also wanted to pursue a military career,” Mayes said. “I looked at other schools, including The Citadel. I wanted to move closer to my sister (Liselle) who lives in Florida.”
Navy, however, caught her attention more than any of the other schools, and Mayes was offered an appointment and accepted before she even met Anti.
“She was not on our radar as someone we were going to recruit, but I was at a rifle competition looking at someone else when she came up to me, told me she had already received her academy appointment and wanted to try out for the team,” Anti said.
Navy, which competed in the Great American Rifle Conference (GARC), posted a 10-7 record in dual meets and notched big wins over Ohio State (4,671-4,637) and sixth-ranked Mississippi (4,677-4,676).
Navy also beat archrival Army in the Star match after losing the regular season meeting between the two service academies. The Midshipmen placed fifth in the conference tournament.
“We had three goals this season: To beat Army, which we did; qualify for the NCAA, which we did; and finish in the top 5 nationally, which we had an outstanding chance of achieving,” Anti said. “We competed against the best teams in the country and we were peaking. We had great scores, breaking school records and we were very excited about our chances.
“It was disappointing they chose to cancel the championships, but it was the thing to do. It was especially disappointing for our two seniors because it was their last meet.”
One of those seniors was team captain Kestrel Kuhne, who was an All-American honorable mention selection and team MVP last season and was on the verge of competing at the NCAAs for a third time. The Everett, Pennsylania native slumped a little this season but wound up shooting from the No. 1 spot the last two weeks. Her sister, Laurel, a sophomore, is also a team member.
Other top performers for Navy this season were sophomore Mark Amdahl (Albuquerque, New Mexico), Michael Zanti (Norfolk, Virginia) and Torrance Kang, a Howard High graduate who was selected to the GARC all-star team along with Mayes.
“It was a very good season for the team as a whole in a lot of ways. It would have been nice to see how we would have done against the other teams,” Mayes said.
Navy also had four shooters selected to the Collegiate Rifle Coaches Association Scholastic All-American list: Kuhne (3.21 grade point average, cyber operations major), Kang (3.70, chemistry), Mayes (3.36, applied mathematics) and freshman Mason MacKenzie (3.41, ocean engineering).