Misplace it or — shudder — damage it in any way and all of a sudden that feeling in the field just isn’t the same. And in the sport of competitive shooting, where victories are measured by the thinnest of margins, the slightest dip in confidence can mean the difference between bringing home the gold and missing the mark.
So, one can probably imagine the uneasiness Brian Carstensen felt after Jacksonville State rifle coach Ron Frost accidentally knocked his highly customized — and not inexpensive — smallbore rifle off a table last October, cracking the stock.
Think of if like spending all day waxing the hot rod you rebuilt in the garage and then when you finally take it out, somebody dents the door in the parking lot.
Not to worry, though. This story has a happy ending.
Carstensen says he has an even better gun now and is shooting it better than ever — just in time to help the Gamecocks in the NCAA Rifle Championships that start today in Columbus, Ga.
“I kind of had mixed emotion about it,” he said. “I had thousands of hours of practice with that rifle. I knew it and knew how to shoot it well, but I’m also one of those people interested in all the new equipment that comes out, the cutting-edge stuff.
“That rifle is still fairly cutting edge … but I did want the newer stock that came out, so it was bittersweet when it actually broke. It gave me an opportunity to get the better stock.”
The old rifle was really good to him. Together, they won three national titles.
After the mishap, which Carstensen called “a complete accident” and Frost accepted complete responsibility for, the Gamecocks tried all sorts of things to make it right. They put the junior in one of the school’s guns, but its stock was wooden as opposed to the updated aluminum to which he was accustomed. They tried to re-weld the broken stock, but that threw off the gun’s weight and action.
Consequently, his scores suffered. It has taken the Hoover native the better part of the year to get “really comfortable” with his new equipment, but now he feels as ready as he can be for the weekend. He is coming off a 573 in the OVC Championships and a 578 in the NCAA Sectionals that included one 100 and two 99s.
“I didn’t feel like that rifle ever shot the same; I thought I was getting some weird shots,” he said. “I think that was more in my head than anything else. But just this last week I kind of had one of those breakthrough moments that’s pretty rare, where you see everything get miraculously better.
“I’m really happy with the way things are going now. I have to say I would probably thank Ron in the end. I got a better rifle now than when I started. … It’s a lot more accurate. Basically, if it’s not a 10, it’s my fault.”
Carstensen won’t have to wait long to put his new gun to the test. The smallbore relays open the NCAA Championships today at the U.S. Army Marksmanship Center on Fort Benning. The scene shifts to the Frank G. Lumpkin Center at Columbus State on Saturday for the air rifle relays that will determine the overall NCAA champion.
The Gamecocks will compete in both disciplines.
They won smallbore team titles in 2009 and 2006, and finished second overall by one point in 2005.
Carstensen knows what it takes to win. He took the individual smallbore crown in 2009. He shot 587 during the team relays and 95.2 in the eight-man championship shootout to win the title by one-tenth of a point. He returned to defend his title as an individual qualifier in 2010, but finished 23rd.
“I put too much pressure on myself last year,” he said. “The Monday before the match was the last day I practiced hard and I shot 591 (two points under the national record) and felt confident. The scores were a little bit lower than they had been in the past and it was well within my reach to win, but I didn’t handle the pressure as much as I should have and let it get to me.
“It was a little discouraging, but trying to repeat an NCAA championship is extremely hard. The national rifle coach will tell you competing in the NCAAs is almost as hard as competing in the Olympics.”
If things don’t go well this weekend, Carstensen will have a strong support system with him.
His wife of seven months, Kayla, also shoots for the JSU team.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.