By Sonny Jones
Breathe in, breathe out, then squeeze the trigger with the tip of the finger.
TWHACK! … TWHACK! … TWHACK! … THWACK!
The small pellets bore into the targets 33 feet away.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon where a handful of students set their sights inside a classroom down C Hallway at West Bladen High School. The school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps air rifle team is wrapping up its first season in the National Air Rifle New Shooter League.
“It’s just really fun for me,” said 15-year-old sophomore Marissa Taylor, who became interested in the discipline from her parents and grandparents. “I like shooting. I don’t hunt. I just shoot pellets.”
Taylor scored a team-high 270.2 points, including an impressive 99.5 in the prone position, in the Knights’ virtual match 1,015.2-to-1,003.4 loss to South Brunswick High JROTC. Other West Bladen scores were Sarah Hash (257.8), Ashley Resindez (238), Ariana Toledo (237.4) and John Hundley (228.1). It was West Bladen’s highest scores in its eight matches.
West Bladen JROTC finished the league’s season with a 4-4 record and ranked 24th overall. The Knights competed virtually against teams from Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, Indiana, Virginia and Alabama before the finale against the squad from nearby Southport.
Members of the West Bladen JROTC air rifle team are, pictured above, from left, front row, Ariana Toledo, Sarah Hash and Ashley Resindez, back row Sergeant First Class (Retired) Vincent Phillips, John Hundley, Marissa Taylor and Lt. Col. (Retired) Matthew Hash.
“I really like that our teammates all get to be together and we get to shoot,” said Sarah Hash, an 18-year-old senior whose father, Matthew, is the head coach and JROTC instructor. “To be able to come to school and actually compete doing rifle is a really cool experience.”
Instructors Hash and Phillips wanted to start the air rifle team in 2020, but with limited in-person classes for almost two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to wait until the fall of 2022 to begin regular practices. The team participated in what is known as postal matches where targets are sent by mail to scorers to determine winners.
When the current academic year began, it was time to get “hot and heavy,” Hash said, “and trying to get the team participating.”
The West Bladen air rifle team participated in competitions at North Brunswick, Southwestern Randolph and Lumberton high schools as well as postal matches in the fall of 2022 before joining the New Shooter League for its spring season.
In the New Shooter League, cadets have 10 minutes in each discipline to shoot 10 rounds in the prone, standing and leg-numbing kneeling position with one leg curled underneath. Targets are sent digitally to the Orion Scoring System. Teams have until Sunday to submit targets for the week’s match.
“It was really hard when we started out, but it’s gotten a lot easier,” Sarah Hash said. “Standing is the hardest position because it’s the most unsteady. You’ve got to learn how to do it.”
Team scores are posted soon after targets are scored each week. That leads to a bit of gamesmanship.
“Most of the time I have tried to shoot first because that sets a bar for the other team to surpass,” Lt. Col. Hash said. “I like to get my scores in early. It may rattle them.”
In order to become a member of the West Bladen air rifle team cadets must make 100 on both a quiz and a test. The team practices about twice a week, Hash said.
“I’m very, very happy with where the (JROTC) program is,” Hash said. “They were involved, but they weren’t as involved.” West Bladen also has a color guard team, drill and platoon programs and other activities.
“We have the Junior ROTC Leadership and Academic Bowl,” Hash said. “It serves their academic and leadership thinking. They take a test as a team and compete to see if they can go to Washington, DC in the summer.
“All these different things that we’re involved in now that the kids have an opportunity to be able to come together, do something, feel accomplished,” Hash said.
The color guard team placed third overall in a recent competition at Westover High School.
“It’s really not about the trophies,” Hash said, “it’s about them coming together, doing something together as a team and seeing where they can become better as an individual is really the biggest thing with all of us working together. That’s what I’ve seen a lot of improvement.”