By DIANE GASPER-O’BRIEN
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – The last time a Fort Hays State University team finished a season as undefeated national champions, Austin Svoboda was a toddler who hadn’t yet celebrated his second birthday, and Riley Ross had not even been born.
That was 1996, when the Tiger men’s basketball team completed a 34-0 season winning the NCAA Division II national championship.
It took 23 years, but an FHSU team recorded a similar feat this year.
Led by standout senior Svoboda and up-and-coming sophomore Ross, the shotgun team completed an undefeated season this school year, highlighted by national championships both semesters.
After winning the Scholarship Clay Target Program (SCTP) national title for the second time in three years last fall, Fort Hays State last month avenged its loss in last year’s Association of College Unions International (ACUI) Clay Target Championships, where it finished second.
FHSU won six meets in the fall season and four this spring to finish 10-0 for the 2018-19 school year.
Claiming first place in four team events and second in two others, Fort Hays State beat runner-up Martin Methodist College out of Tennessee by 10 points at the ACUI season finale in San Antonio, Texas, last month. That was the same team that FHSU beat at the SCTP national meet in Marengo, Ohio, last November.
Those titles were in Division II – for schools with 10 to 20 competitors. The ACUI meet featured 884 total competitors from 91 schools in four divisions.
“It was definitely a goal to win (the ACUI) after finishing second last year,” Svoboda said. “We wanted to come back and take this one, especially since we are graduating five people.”
It was the fifth national team championship for Fort Hays State – to go along with five runner-up performances – since 2011.
“They knew they were capable of performing at a higher level last year,” said Duane Shepherd, in his 14th year of coaching the shotgun team. “They entered this year with a mission in mind and went out and achieved it.”
Svoboda has played an integral part of FHSU teams since 2012, and his swan song was one to remember. He claimed first place individually in two events and was a member of all four team event winners for Fort Hays State in claiming the individual high overall award.
Shepherd said that Svoboda’s focus has always been on team first. But he admitted that “it’s pretty hard to deny what he has accomplished as an individual.”
“He is very talented individually,” Shepherd said. “He has the competitive mental game where he can turn it on and turn it off.”
Ross, who grew up near Svoboda – both are from Nebraska – said he has been watching, and trying to emulate, Svoboda for years.
“I watched him all through high school, and he never ceases to amaze me what he can shoot,” Ross said. “Whenever you heard that Austin Svoboda was going to shoot, you always wanted to go watch.”
Ross, who had been shooting since he was 4 years old, learned his junior year in high school that FHSU had a shotgun team. Finding out that Svoboda went there didn’t hurt, either.
“I went to a shoot here my junior year, and I found out they had a good ag major, so it was in the back of my mind from there on,” Ross said. “I knew then that this is where I was going to go.”
Ross fit in with the shotgun team immediately, winning the high overall individual award at nationals as a freshman.
Last month, he was a member of three first-place teams and one runner-up team, grabbing All-America honors along with seniors Cody Escritt, Jake Whipple, Jerrod Lies, and Josh Crankshaw.
Svoboda, in his sixth year at FHSU, was missing from that list only because competitors can only be named All-American four years, and he accomplished that feat two years ago.
Escritt, Whipple, and Lies are three of the graduating seniors along with Svoboda, but Whipple will be back for another year while pursuing a graduate degree.
Whipple was a member of three first-place team events and one runner-up at nationals and will be counted on to help lead next year’s team along with Ross.
Ross said he is up to the challenge.
“Austin is just a great team leader, and I’ve learned a lot from him,” Ross said. “He is irreplaceable. We will just need to step it up and carry on.”
In addition to being named All-American, Escritt finished first in two individual events and recorded a perfect score of 100. Several of the seniors scored in the high 90s at nationals.
“It was rewarding to see those seniors to go out on such a high note,” Shepherd said.
He pointed out several reasons the shotgun team is successful year after year, both in and out of the classroom.
“I’m proud of the fact that these kids are here of their own accord, because we don’t have scholarships for our shotgun team,” Shepherd said. “They come in with a commitment in mind – to be successful on the team and in academics. They are all pulling for a common goal, and they support each other well. They get their education and graduate.”
Team members will tell you there are two more reasons for their success – Shepherd and his wife, Teresa.
“It wouldn’t be a program without them,” Ross said. “Duane always says he’s the bus driver, but he does so much more – and a lot behind the scenes. And Teresa is the team mom. She takes care of us so well.”
Shepherd agreed that his wife adds to the program.
“She’s an integral part of this group,” he said. “In fact, she’s the driving force. We complement each other well.”
While the graduating seniors are looking ahead to their future, they feel the shotgun team will continue to excel without them.
“Riley Ross is very talented,” Svoboda said, “and we have some people down the bench who can shoot good scores at about any time. It’s their time to shine now.”
“There’s no doubt about it, we will miss these young people who are leaving the program. They put a lot of time into developing their skills,” he said. “But we had a junior varsity this year, and they are ready to step up and start writing their chapter in this book.”
Following are the names of students who competed at the ACUI nationals last month and the FHSU results.
AKRON, Colo.: Jenny Schoenecker, senior
BURWELL, Neb.: Austin Svoboda, senior
CAMBRIDGE, Neb.: Jake Whipple, senior
COLBY: Keegan Morgan, senior
Jay Ziegelmeier, senior
JANESVILLE, Wis.: Luke Heinzen, junior
JEWELL: Michael Saint, graduate student
MINNEOLA: Jerrod Lies, senior
NORTH PLATTE, Neb.: Josh Crankshaw, senior
PINE VALLEY, Calif.: Heather Gordon, junior
PLEASANTON: Hunter Secrest, sophomore
PLEASANTON, Neb.: Cody Escritt, senior
ST. PAUL, Neb.: Riley Ross, sophomore
TOPEKA: Wyatt Pursell, junior
YODER: Cordell Waggoner, sophomore
FHSU results from ACUI nationals
• Svoboda – Individual HOA; first, men’s trap; first, men’s international trap; first, combined trap.
• Escritt – first, men’s American all-around; first, trap and skeet for men’s combined American;
• NRA All-Americans – Crankshaw, Escritt, Lies, Ross, Whipple.
• HOA (highest overall) – first, Division II.
• American trap – first: Svoboda, Escritt, Whipple, Lies, Crankshaw (497 out out 500).
• International trap – first: Svoboda, Ross, Whipple (287 out of 300).
• Sporting clays – first: Svoboda, Escritt, Lies, Crankshaw, Ross (446 out 500).
• Super sporting – first: Svoboda, Ross, Escritt, Purcell, Hippie (478 out of 500).
• American skeet – second: Escritt, Saint, Whipple, Lies, Waggoner (487 out of 500).
• American all-around – first (trap, skeet, sporting clays and super sporting combined).