Brooke grad Kyanko helps WVU rifle team earn title

MORGANTOWN – As a youngster growing up in Wellsburg, Thomas Kyanko played a variety of sports, though he wasn’t totally passionate for them.

He played Little League baseball and basketball in grade school. He even tried soccer for a season. Still, he needed to find his niche off the court and field.

Juggling, maybe? What about magic tricks? Lion-taming, perhaps?

No, for Kyanko, a random car ride to Washington, Pa., when he was in eighth grade was all it took for him to find the perfect activity – rifle shooting.

“My dad just happened to check out a range there one day when he was driving to work,” Kyanko said. “I decided to go to one of its junior shooting nights and I just really enjoyed it. I wanted to go back and give it another shot.”

Literally.

Within a year of his regular trips to the range, club coaches encouraged him to get his own rifle.

“Early on I was just using their equipment,” Kyanko said. “My mom was a little worried or apprehensive, because rifles can be pretty expensive.

“We were then told that there are actually college scholarships out there for this. That instantly sold her on it.”

It led to his accepting of a scholarship to West Virginia University. Since joining the Mountaineers’ rifle team, the 2010 Brooke High graduate has played a part in two NCAA National Championships.

In 2013, WVU beat Kentucky. This year, it held off Alaska-Fairbanks.

“It’s a really great experience,” Kyanko said. “I never thought I would have the opportunity to be a part of something so special. It’s really all been pretty amazing.”

The titles came in the air rifle and smallbore categories. WVU has won three national championships in the eight years that coach Jon Hammond has been instructing the team. The Mountaineers’ 16 total rifle titles are the most of any program in the country.

For being a largely individual sport, it still takes teamwork and cohesion to find the success that WVU has experienced in recent years.

“The main thing is our support within the team,” Kyanko said. “We have an extremely positive and supportive group of team members. It takes a tremendous amount of work. We’re a very dedicated group of people who work together and support each other a lot.

“Everybody has something they have more experience with or some aspect that somebody is a little better with. So, we can always lean on each other and go to someone on the team if we ever need help.”

That could be what sets the Mountaineers so far ahead of every other program in the country.

“Other schools do have amazing teams,” Kyanko said. “But I’m sure that our chemistry certainly helps and makes us different.”

Different among the other sports at WVU, too.

They’re not as identifiable across campus as the basketball or football stars, but the only national champions in school history certainly do stick out.

“Not so much as individuals,” Kyanko said. “But it’s kind of unique when we’re walking around because we are a part of such a successful sport on campus – we’re the rifle team.

“Across the state people do recognize the rifle team.”

Across the nation, too.

In early March, Kyanko and the Mountaineers were invited to the White House. President Barack Obama held a special ceremony to honor the back-to-back champions.

“I’ve been blessed to have so many opportunities to go to great places and meet great people all because of rifle,” Kyanko said. “I’m really fortunate to have been able to make a career out of it.”

While still in high school, Kyanko was a member of the USA Junior National Team. He took part in national matches in Colorado and Georgia and also represented the country at the 2008 Shooting Hopes match in Pilzen, Czech Republic. Kyanko finished as high as eighth in one of the shooting categories overseas.

“It was my first time out of the country,” Kyanko said. “It was really weird being in a place where I couldn’t read the street signs or billboards. My friends and teachers and Brooke were really supportive because I had to miss a few days of school.

“It was a lot of fun, though. It was the best way to start my career and get a feel for some excellent competition.”

Statistically, Kyanko averaged 579 points in smallbore and 585 points in air rifle for his junior season in which the Mountaineers finished 10-0. He was also named to the NRA Smallbore Second Team.

His career high in smallbore is 591, while he reached 594 in air rifle. Those records came in his sophomore and freshman year, respectively.

Academically, Kyanko was a Bucklew Scholar and class valedictorian at Brooke. At WVU, he’s a member of the honors college and is a three-time honoree on the conference all-academic team.

He is a computer science major who hopes to pursue a master’s and doctorate degree.

Kyanko still has another year of collegiate shooting ahead of him. The NCAA rifle schedule starts in October, but there are year-round national matches that the Mountaineers take part in.

Many are actually larger than the NCAA national championship.

And Kyanko plans on his team to be back in the title hunt in 2015, though he never expected to be in this position five years ago.

“This was just something I started doing for fun,” Kyanko said of rifle-shooting. “I always thought that I should be involved in some kind of sport.

“Most of the other ones I tried, I didn’t enjoy all that much. I started this and really enjoyed it right away and became successful at it.”

Definitely more so than a juggler, magician or lion-tamer.