Most collegiate athletes start competing in their respective sports at a young age, but for senior rifle team member Claire Spina, it wasn’t until high school that she got her start in rifle.
Spina, the Wolfpack’s top shooter this season, participated in other activities and sports for most of her childhood before getting into rifle, something that is common among her peers and teammates. For her, that sport was martial arts, which she had been doing since she was 6 years old, but she wanted an opportunity to compete at the next level and get a scholarship.
“I was looking for something else,” Spina said. “Something that I could continue competing in while at college.”
That “something?” Rifle.
"I ended up going to a practice for my high school’s rifle team,” Spina said. “I just thought it sounded interesting and thought I could try it out and I ended up really enjoying it.”
Spina attended Robinson Secondary in Fairfax, Virginia, a place that has become a hotbed for potential collegiate rifle talent since many high schools in the northern Virginia area host rifle as a sport. Several others that were already on NC State’s rifle team while she was in high school, including 2016 United States Olympian Lucas Kozeniesky and 2016 NCAA Championships Qualifier Caitlyn Ford, had attended Robinson Secondary for high school and helped Spina make that connection - something that’s critically important in a smaller sport like rifle.
“Obviously, you still need the scores and the grades,” Spina said. “But in that regard, that whole connection and knowing people does help a lot.”
In Spina’s case, having that connection to the team already, along with her scores, helped guide her in her college decision to come to NC State. Although Kozeniesky and Ford have since left State, the rifle team still has three members from Robinson Secondary including Spina, and she helped recruit the other two, junior Zach Eisenberg and freshman Emily Fisher.
Spina’s decision to come to Raleigh has certainly paid off, but it hasn’t always been easy.
Spina never appeared in more than 10 matches for the Pack before this season, and appeared in just five matches her sophomore year. After her junior year in which she appeared in nine of the Wolfpack’s 14 matches, longtime head coach Keith Miller, who had recruited her to come to Raleigh, resigned, and current head coach Emily Holsopple was hired. This was a stark transition for the team, as Miller had been at the helm since 1990. She sometimes wouldn’t travel with the team last year, but that’s all changed.
“I had a little bit of a rough start in terms of score and just in terms of getting started on the team,” Spina said. “I had to trust that the long practices where I didn’t see results right away were going to eventually work out and I’m so glad that I kept with it because now I’m seeing those results.”
This year, she’s been the top shooter on the team and has consistently been among the top scorers at meets. Against Navy earlier in January, she set a personal record with an aggregate score of 1,170 and led the Pack in both smallbore and air rifle while finishing with the highest aggregate score among all competitors.
She was even invited to the Winter Airgun Championships in December along with five of her teammates, an event that serves as a qualifier for the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup.
“She has been a tremendous leader and teammate,” Holsopple said. “She’s a great role model for student-athletes.”
Spina credits the coaching change as one of the reasons she’s been successful this season.
“It’s such a different coaching style,” Spina said. “Things tend to be a bit more structured, and that particular style does work well for a lot of the team.”
Despite the long road to get to this point in her career, Spina’s hard work has paid off, both in terms of her rifle scores and in the classroom. She’s set to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in science, technology and society and was named an NC State Scholar Athlete by the Great America Rifle Conference last season.
With a new head coach and new culture, Spina and the other seniors could have coasted in their last seasons, but they fully embraced the change.
“They had every reason to check out or move on or do whatever, but their hearts are still in it, which I absolutely love,” Holsopple said. “For them to welcome me the way they did, it was awesome and I really appreciate them, and I have the most fantastic senior class and they’ve been great to me, and Claire’s been a leader to that.”
Holsopple cites Spina’s confidence and consistency in her vast improvement and success this season.
As with anything, there are good and bad moments, but Spina will remember her time at NC State for the good ones.
“There are ups and downs in any college career and any sport, and I’ve definitely had those, but I think I’m going to look back on the whole thing fondly,” Spina said. “It’s a lot of hard work, it’s a lot of early mornings, a lot of late nights, but I’ve had opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”