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Small but mighty: A year of growth for Memphis rifle and hopes for the future

<p><span>Coach Morgan Phillips oversees as Jack Kersey practices his technique, giving occasional corrections.</span></p>
Coach Morgan Phillips oversees as Jack Kersey practices his technique, giving occasional corrections.

Walking into the R.F. Fogelman Rifle Range, loud pops sound off in succession from the right, breaking the silence of the empty entrance. Past a cozy lounge area and through an open door, the University of Memphis rifle team is holding practice – lined up and shooting at targets across the room. 

Kaylene Castillo, Taylor Christian, Angeline Henry and Jack Kersey – the four team members returning next year – are laser-focused on their targets while Interim Head Coach Morgan Phillips observes and critiques. 

The team is fresh off the NCAA Championships, held this year in Colorado Springs on March 11 and 12, where Henry and Castillo competed individually, Henry placing 36th in air rifle and Castillo 39th in smallbore rifle. 

“Having that experience on the national championship stage is really invaluable,” Phillips said. “No matter how the result turned out.” 

Coach Phillips, a former member of the West Virginia University team, is relatively new to Memphis. She joined as a graduate assistant coach in 2020 and was promoted to interim head coach just last year. At 24, it’s only been a few years since she was a collegiate athlete herself, winning back-to-back championships for WVU in 2017 and 2018. 

“It definitely was a little bit unexpected, but I felt like I could handle it,” she said. 

During her first year as head coach, Phillips said she wanted to focus on growing the team and laying a good foundation for the future. She said the team spent the year steadily improving, culminating in their best match of the year at the NCAA qualifiers in February. 

She’s ready to bring her experience at WVU as a member of a championship team to Memphis and build the Tigers into a fierce competitor. Part of that includes training the five incoming freshmen for next year, which will bring them to nine members total, an increase from the past year’s team of six. 

“From a team side of things, we should be in really good shape to shoot well,” she said. 

As for the four returning members, they’re looking forward to a year with a fresh start and more chances to improve. 

“I think I was kind of slacking off a little bit at the start of this year,” said junior Angeline Henry from across the team’s conference table as she cleans her rifle. “I’m going to try to just focus on technical and fundamental things.” 

Henry, one of the two who competed in the championships, has been with the team for two years, but she’s been shooting for most of her life – first in BB gun and then air rifle – winning multiple state and national championship titles during middle and high school. 

Though she says the year got off to a “rocky” start for her, Henry eventually found her stride after focusing less on scores and more on technique, per advice from Phillips. For her, one of the high points of the season was placing 2nd in air rifle at the Great America Rifle Conference. 

“I fought so hard throughout that entire final, and it was so fun, too,” she said. 

One of the challenges next year will be the addition of so many new team members and incorporating them into the dynamic. However, she says Phillips has done well in creating a good team environment and adding people who fit within that context. 

Henry says her favorite thing since coming to Memphis has been the environment and the support of the team. 

“Growing up I never really had a team,” she said. “I think my favorite thing is just being surrounded by people who all love the sport and treat each other with respect and kindness.”

Coach Morgan Phillips oversees as Jack Kersey practices his technique, giving occasional corrections.

Junior Angeline Henry crouches in front of the target, silently firing off shot after shot

Sophomores Kaylene Castillo and Taylor Christian practice with the rest of the team at the R.F. Fogelman rifle range.

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