When it comes to dream destinations for a sports team, it's pretty hard to top The Citadel rifle team's recent visit to Fairbanks, Alaska, for a two-day competition.
How many other athletes at the school ever went dog-sledding in their free time? Certainly not the 2010 Citadel football team that traveled to Arizona. And not this year's basketball team that traveled to Canada for a summer exhibition series.
"It was definitely an experience. Most of the people who went on the trip live in North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia. We loved jumping in the snowbanks, throwing snowballs. We had a great time," said Teddi Haliscak, a junior member of the women's team from Horsehead, N.Y.
"The kids apparently had a blast, so I'm definitely jealous," said Citadel rifle coach William Smith, who did not make the trip. "They got to go dog-sledding, they went to Chena Hot Springs. The University of Alaska has an outstanding native culture museum. They all really had a great time seeing that stuff."
The genesis of this year's trip dates back six years when Alaska-Fairbanks, a 10-time NCAA champion in rifle, invited The Citadel to compete in a regional. The Nanooks have traveled to The Citadel for matches in the ensuing years, but Smith wanted to send a team back to Alaska and was able to schedule matches there Jan. 19 against Ohio State and Jan. 20 against the host school. The Citadel lost both matches on the scorecard but came away winners, said team captain Richard Hunton, a junior from Columbia.
"I'm really grateful we had the opportunity to go to Alaska. Alaska (No. 2) and Ohio State are some of the higher-ranked teams in the country and it was a great opportunity to compete against them," Hunton said.
"We did very well considering we were coming back from a long winter break and three days later left for Alaska with only a couple of practices under our belt. I think we represented The Citadel very well," added Haliscak.
Assistant coach Shannon Brusseau accompanied the team. In addition to Hunton, members of the men's team who traveled were Nathaniel Moy, Robert Jackson and Charles Yeh. Women's team members were Margaret LaRiviere, Amber Mills, Ashten Byrne and Haliscak.
Haliscak said the Alaska trip has been a topic of conversation for a couple of years. Wrangling an invitation to participate in the match was no problem, Smith said. The problem was raising the funds for cadets to make the trip. Knowing it would be difficult to finance eight team members plus Brusseau, Smith used competition as an incentive.
"Last year at the end of the season when we scheduled the match, I said it would be whichever team had scored the best, plus two people from the other team. I kind of surprised them at the last minute and said both teams were going," Smith said.
Funds were raised in a variety of methods. Smith got grants from the Friends of the NRA (National Rifle Association) as well as the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Team members sold mugs and coozies with "Citadel Rifle Team 2014 - Alaska or Bust" at a football game. Lt. Col. Richard Moore, who coached the team to national titles in 1959, 1960 and 1961, was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame in the fall, and that led to another fundraising opportunity during a rifle team alumni gathering.
The dream turned into reality on Jan. 16. Air rifles, .22-caliber rifles and ammunition were inspected and checked at Charleston International Airport, and soon the team was headed on its 4,300-mile journey.
"We left out of here at 3:30 a.m. to catch the flight and flew all day," Hunton said. "We arrived at Fairbanks around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, took our rifles and shooting gear to their range and then went to our hotel for dinner and some rest."
Smith built in two days for the team to rest and enjoy the Alaska experience.
The highlight of the trip, other than the competition itself, was dog-sledding.
"That was really neat for the team members," Hunton said. "The lady who did it was very gracious, very helpful. She would stand on the back and guide the dogs and we could fit two team members on the sled at a time. The ride was around 20 or 30 minutes. She showed us how to harness the dogs for sledding, and when we finished, she complimented everybody on the team for how well they handled the dogs."
Haliscak said every member of the team agreed the dog-sledding excursion was one of the best experiences they could remember "hands down."
The journey back to Charleston was the most arduous part of the trip, consuming the better part of two days because of a snowstorm in the northeast. But it was a small price to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.