At just ten years old, Matt Sanchez began his career as a marksman. Now, as a senior rifle athlete at West Virginia University, the Florida native is a leading marksman for the No. 1 rifle program in the country.
Throughout the first three matches in 2023, Sanchez averages 1,185.333 aggregate points per match, the sixth highest in the nation.
But Sanchez's collegiate success has not always come easy. In fact, he struggled to make the transition to college early in his career.
Sanchez said his family does not have much college experience, so he took initiative in working through the challenges.
“College, for me, was something that I had to take on for myself and really push myself to, for one, get the whole process going,” Sanchez said. “And for two, work myself to go ahead and graduate, as well, which I’m working on.”
When Sanchez arrived in West Virginia in 2020, he said a role on the Rifle team was “difficult to find.” Sanchez was an accomplished marksman in high school, becoming an alternate in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Still, he had trouble translating his success as a teenager to the collegiate level.
In addition to challenges that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanchez did not have a lot of experience competing on a team, making his transition into collegiate play more difficult. Sanchez said he always shot by himself throughout his junior years, practicing and competing alone.
“It was always just by myself,” he said. “Maybe one or two people would kind of be along for the ride but never an actual, formal team like I have here right now.”
Competing with a team allowed Sanchez to discover where he fits in with the group of athletes. While he said he takes a leadership role, motivating and guiding his teammates toward success, the biggest role he plays is “keeping the mood up.”
“I like to joke around a lot,” Sanchez said. “I like to keep things light as well on the rest of the team. Rifle can get very intense in the mind, especially.”
As a senior, Sanchez said he has made many friendships during his four years in the program. Although he did not personally know many of his teammates before coming to West Virginia, he now considers some of them his closest friends.
Sanchez met fifth-year senior Mary Tucker in Florida when they trained together in their youth, and he met senior Tal Engler in 2018 in Germany. However, he mentioned seniors Becca Lamb and Molly McGhin are some of his “closest friends,” despite not knowing them before arriving at WVU.
“They’ve always been very supportive of me, and I’ve been supportive of them in anything that they’re working on or going through,” Sanchez said of the pair.
Sanchez credited his teammates and coaches for supporting him throughout his four years as a Mountaineer.
As for his success as one of the top collegiate air rifle marksmen in the country, Sanchez credited himself.
“A lot of the drive and a lot of the determination to succeed was definitely the main point of success for air rifle,” he said.
Once named an Olympic alternate, Sanchez began to feel less consistent with his air rifle skill. He said it had “been a fight with the air rifles,” as he had to overcome several challenges as his collegiate career progressed.
The setback motivated Sanchez to make it back to the top, and now, after three matches into the season, Sanchez averages 596 air rifle points per match, the twelfth-highest in NCAA Rifle rankings.
Sanchez also said he improved in smallbore, averaging 589.333 points per match so far this season.
Smallbore is different from air rifle, in that the athlete shoots from three different positions — kneeling, prone and standing — for a total of 60 shots. In air rifle, 60 shots are fired from one standing position.
“Smallbore has improved by a lot,” Sanchez said. “I’ve never shot in the 590s at all for college until this season. I’ve never been this consistent with smallbore until this season, so that’s really, really good.”
With an improvement in both smallbore and rifle, Sanchez has some personal goals for his final season: staying consistent and qualifying for the 2024 Olympic team.
Outside of NCAA play, Sanchez currently sits in third place in the Olympic Trial Selection. To make the Olympic team, he has to be in the top two.
“That’s a personal driver for me, to take that determination from trying to make this Olympic team and apply it to NCAA competitions,” Sanchez said.
For his team, Sanchez believes that WVU has a chance to win the NCAA Championships held in Morgantown on March 8-9, 2024.
“It’s not something that’s not attainable for us. I think we’re pretty prepared for that,” Sanchez said. “I think we’re in a really good spot to win the championships here at home, so I’m really excited for that, to get that done and get that process going.”
The Mountaineers have held their No. 1 spot in NCAA Rifle rankings so far this season, leading with a team aggregate score of 4745.666. At 3-0, no team has outshot Sanchez’s squad.
Sanchez said the team’s goal is not allowing an opponent to shoot “even close to” the Mountaineers' scores. He also said that he wants the team to be as consistent and efficient as possible, something he said they have already done throughout their first three matches.
“We want to be aggressive for their scores. We want to be aggressive with how we compete, how we get our matches done,” Sanchez said. “We would like to leave no mercy at all with any of the teams we shoot against. That includes everybody.”
In his effort toward a successful senior campaign, Sanchez said he is dedicating this season to one of his best friends from back home in Tampa, Florida.
Benjamin Salas was a teammate of Sanchez’s who passed away in April. Sanchez and Salas met in 2017 and trained together in high school before going separate ways to pursue their collegiate careers.
Sanchez said Salas’s passing brought the team closer together, as it became a motivator to increase their scores and better their performance. Sanchez added that a lot of the things he does as an athlete, he does for Salas.
“It really brought us closer together, and it’s a lot of the reason we are the way that we are right now,” Sanchez said. “Losing him, for me, was kind of a standpoint for me to get my stuff together.”
As Sanchez carries Salas’s legacy with him through his last season of collegiate competition, he thinks about his future in rifle. After he graduates in May with a bachelor’s degree in finance and a minor in music technology, he hopes to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games.
In preparation for the Summer Olympics, Sanchez will continue his senior season on Oct. 28 against Texas Christian University and hope to lead his team to a National Championship title.