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Air rifle team from Fort Mill outshoots reporter

Stories that start with schools and guns aren’t expected to end with scholarships and championships.

But there’s one being told at Fort Mill and Nation Ford high schools. Marine JROTC rifle teams at both just fired off record seasons in a sport that’s easily misunderstood. Yes, it’s a little odd meeting at a locked-in, classroom range. It’s unusual seeing high-schoolers lined up and staring down sights at paper target sheets.

Gun control? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone controlling them better.

“We’ve never, and never will, shoot anybody,” says retired Lt. Col. Rod Robinson, coach at Fort Mill.

Robinson greets me days ahead of his team leaving for an inter-service championship in Anniston, Ala. Earning that trip were seniors Lucas Stalnaker and Trey Sheppard, junior Sean Moughan and freshman Brian Hampton.

All four finished top 50 in the country among 1,200 shooters from 300 teams at the Marine Corps National Championship in February. Jordan Lozinski finished 67th.

Robinson warns if I outshoot any of them, he’ll take me and leave them home. Six practice shots and four of a possible 60 points in, they aren’t worried.

“You would be done,” Sheppard said. “You’d have no chance.”

I sight up for what’s an inebriating view. The target stretches seven-eighths of an inch from bull’s-eye to outer edge, nearly half of it invisible from 10 meters. The slightest nudge and you’re pelletting unmarked paper.

My first practice shot misses by more than 3 inches.

Evidently I’m the only guy in town who hasn’t mastered this sport. Like brothers who love one another more than either will admit, Fort Mill and Nation Ford spent the past six months – and as many states – one-upping each other. The Fort Mill Yellow Jackets entered last month’s Corp championship in Anniston as second best in their own town, three points shy of the Nation Ford Falcons in qualifying. The Jackets left as best in their half of the country, third nationally.

The Falcons finished 11th.

“Our teams always provide the closest competition,” he said of several matches against Fort Mill this season. “One team will beat the other by the narrowest of margins.”

They’re even carpooling together. Nation Ford shooter Hayden Briggs finished 20th at the Corp event, qualifying for the inter-service and hitching a ride with Fort Mill. Along with Hampton (5th) and Sheppard (11th), this town boasts three of the top 20 Marine JROTC snipers in the country.

I graduated with a girl who won Fort Mill a state championship in air rifling, then joined the Ole Miss women’s squad where she helped set team records and appeared on multiple all-academic lists. Academic and shooting scholarships paid her way there.

“It’s an NCAA sport,” Kristen Walters said. “Ole Miss recruited me and Nebraska recruited me, and I went with Ole Miss.”

Someone who’d never shot a gun before the high school program worked out alongside future NFL stars Eli Manning and Patrick Willis, among other Rebel athletes. She traveled the country and taught youth programs. She twice competed at the junior Olympic level.

But the Mississippi mother of two understands why the sport that afforded her so much doesn’t get mainstream attention.

“You hear ‘guns’ and you think it can’t be safe,” Walters said, “but it is. You have very few injuries. It doesn’t happen.”

Little mistakes

Shooting seems such a power game. Locking on target is more like Tibetan sandpainting or pumping a dollar worth of gas. It’s delicate, ginger. A little mistake goes a long way.

They tell me to anchor my elbow into my hipbone. I couldn’t find my hipbone with a three-man search party. And besides, when’s the last time John Wayne anchored his gun into anything?

I’m expecting overblown, raspy monologues before each round. Maybe a white cowboy hat to improve my aim. I quickly learn we’re not filming movies here. These four cut up like any four high schoolers will, but not when it comes to firearms.

“It’s basic safety,” Stalnaker says. “Don’t go downrange when somebody’s shooting. Don’t point the rifle at anything you don’t plan to shoot.”

My first shot nearly nips the outer ring. Shots two and three aren’t that close. My fourth puts a hole through the disclaimer on the corner of the page. Five shots in and I’m pointless. Sheppard has 44 with three bull’s-eyes, Stalnaker has 42 and Hampton, 36. No telling how many Moughan has. He’s busy swapping out his score sheet with one he peppered earlier. One with seven perfect shots and three that couldn’t have missed by less, for a staggering 97 out of 100 points.

He’s hard-pressed to confess how he shot it, in the much more stable prone, or lying down, position. For all the severity and safety, these guys aren’t beyond chicanery.

I’d need a degree in air rifle mechanics before their inside jokes stop sounding like something gargled out of a foreign language translator. I do get that Stalnaker takes his fair share of ribbing. Evidently teammates hear plenty about his pending enrollment at the U.S. Naval Academy, hanging it like a hashtag after most everything he says. It’s a wonder Hampton isn’t getting more grief from the upperclassmen. Being in the top half dozen nationally must have its perks.

Finally I puncture the dark paper. Then once more before air-pelletting the last two. A dozen points on three shots, compared to 23 per man on the same targets. We retrieve the wreckage. My best shot, a six-pointer, would’ve been 29th best. They shot 30 pellets.

Their scores of 80 or better mean each put 10 metal projectiles, on average, through a hole three-eighths of an inch wide. I’ve eaten bigger raisins. I won’t be going to Alabama. I won’t even make the big screen. I’m a marksman in name only. Then again, I’ve never looked good in white hats, anyway.

On Your Marks Scoreboard

Competition: Fort Mill High School JROTC rifle team

Contest: One round of air rifle shooting, 10 targets from 10 meters

Score: Team members tallied scores of 83,83 and 80 compared to 12 for Marks. Final score: Fort Mill 82, Marks 12.