North/South/East/West Xtra: WPIAL rifle teams say sport is more than meets the eye

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When Hempfield senior Alex Thomas tells others he’s on the Spartans rifle team, he usually gets the same response.

“They usually say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool. How do you do that?’” Thomas said.

Rifling gets less notoriety than many other sports in the district, but it has been a WPIAL sport since 1942. Competitors use a single-shot .22 target rifle and shoot in the prone (lying down) position. They have 15 minutes to shoot 10 targets, with the center of the target counting as 10 points and each outer ring decreasing in points. If a competitor hits the center ring (which is the size of a silver dollar) without nicking the ring next to it, then he/she gets a bonus. A perfect score would be 100-10x, meaning the competitor got a 10 on each of the 10 targets (100) and got the bonus (10x) on each shot. For team competitions, each team has 10 shooters, with only the top eight scores counting.

Rifling also is the WPIAL’s only true co-ed sport. There are no separate girls and boys teams, as all shooters, no matter the gender, compete against one another.

And the girls are often better.

“Honestly, girls are better shooters,” Thomas said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be as good as we are.”

Thomas, a PIAA qualifier last season, has seen that up close as teammate Abbie Bache is the defending WPIAL champion. In fact, the top three finishers last season were female, and a few years ago, each of the top 10 WPIAL finishers were girls.

Trinity coach John Husk has a theory as to why girls tend to shoot better than boys.

“[Girls] pay attention and listen to instructions better,” said Husk, who has won 11 WPIAL titles in 24 years as coach. “I know what it takes to shoot well and my best shooters are the ones who remember what I tell them.”

Hempfield senior Kelly O’Neill, another returning PIAA qualifier for the Spartans, believes the fact that many girls come in without any knowledge of how to shoot helps them learn the basics more quickly.

“I think most boys have at least tried hunting, and I never hunted, and my sister who is now on the team never hunted and neither did her friends who she’s brought on to the team,” O’Neill said. “So we didn’t have any bad habits and maybe are more open-minded to learning the first time.”

Husk, Hempfield coach Tom Miller and Woodland Hills coach Matt Rodrigues all estimated that one-third of their teams or less had shooting experience prior to joining the team and all concurred that the lower that percentage, the better.

So how are these teams getting 40-50 kids without much shooting experience to come out for the team?

Mostly through word of mouth.

Two of Rodrigues’ best shooters, Laura Valenti and Miranda Johnson, joined their freshman years after hearing about how fun it was from Miranda’s older sister, former PIAA runner-up Martina Johnson.

O’Neill joined the Hempfield squad after shooting a BB gun well at her grandfather’s camp and one of her cousins joked that she should try out for the Spartans’ shooting team.

Thomas has been shooting a rifle since the age of 12, but didn’t join the rifle team until his sophomore year after he was convinced to give it a try by his cousin, Kent Thomas.

“My kids do the recruiting for me,” Miller said.

All three coaches said they’ve had plenty of competitors who’ve played other sports, and plenty of competitors who have no prior athletic experience. But the one attribute that most of the best shooters all share is intelligence.

Husk said he has coached three valedictorians in his time at Trinity, while Rodrigues said his team’s grade point average is 3.7.

“My best shooters are usually my smartest kids,” Husk said. “To be successful, you have to pay attention, remember what you’re told and do it over and over again.”

While intelligence is important, so is confidence and focus. Competitors need to hold steady during shots to hit their mark, not have their hands rattling. And the shooters need to hold that confidence and steadiness for 10 targets (or 15 minutes), which can be difficult.

Lastly, according to Rodrigues, competitors need a positive outlook to be successful. They can’t let a bad make them lose the focus they once had.

And the best part of all those attributes, Rodrigues said, is that they can carry over to any aspect of life.

“I didn’t use to be that confident,” Miranda Johnson said. “But in rifling, you have to be confident, and you have to have focus, concentration and positivity. And those are all traits you have to have to be successful in anything in life. So rifling has definitely helped me grow as a person.”

And more schools recently are giving their students the chance to grow in the same way. In the past few years, West Greene and Waynesburg added rifle squads, raising the total number of teams in the area to 14.

The additions come at a time when the country as a whole is debating whether stricter gun control is needed. However, the WPIAL rifle teams haven’t felt any repercussions from the country-wide debate.

“Once, seven or eight years ago after one of the school shootings [in the United States], the school administration asked to see how we run things,” Husk said. “But I showed them that any time, since they are only one-shot rifles, I know who had a bullet in their guns. And when we leave the range, all the guns are locked in a vault that only I can open. The guns aren’t coming into the halls. It’s really safe.

“That’s the only time I’ve ever been asked about it.”

Not once in the more than 70 years the sport has been around in the WPIAL has there been an accident, Rodrigues said. He contends that because of that, it’s the safest sport.

And he’ll do whatever is asked to help more teams participate.

“I was talking with a parent from North Allegheny the other day who wished they had a rifle team,” Rodrigues said. “She said they have every other sport there, but not rifling. I told her, ‘I’ll support you, do whatever you want, to help get you a team.’

“I just believe this sport brings a diverse group of the student population together because it is so mentally focused. You don’t have to run really fast, or be really strong. You can be those things, but it’s really about who can be absolutely still for a long, long time and remain patient and focused. It attracts all different types of kids.”

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