SHOOTING FOR GOLD: FWHS JROTC RIFLE TEAM SHOOTS FOR NATIONAL TITLE - The Explorer: Import

SHOOTING FOR GOLD: FWHS JROTC RIFLE TEAM SHOOTS FOR NATIONAL TITLE

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Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2002 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Insistent knocking followed by a swath of harsh, midday sun cuts through the calm of the building's cool, dark interior as the heavy steel door opens. It swings shut again with a thud. Heavy steps across hollow floorboards, phones ringing and scattered conversations bounce off the heavy cinderblock walls.

Three teen-age boys with rifles remain fixed on their targets, seemingly oblivious to the constant commotion only a few feet away. One shooter lies on his belly. With slow and deliberate aim, he squeezes off a shot.

"That's Chris Yerhart, our team captain," says Senior Army Instructor Maj. Robert DeWitt. "He'll be a senior next year."

The 17-year-old waves quickly over one shoulder before returning his focus to resetting his air rifle. Once loaded and positioned, he lands another shot squarely within the concentric circles printed on a paper target pinned to the shooting range's far wall.

A three-year veteran of the Flowing Wells High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Rifle Team, Yerhart will lead his teammates at this year's Army National Guard National Air Rifle Championship. The three-day competition begins June 13 at Camp Robinson, in Little Rock, Ark. Ten teams are expected to attend.

The competition is open to any shooter under 19 years old. While individual shooters often compete, most participants are from high school JROTC teams, 4H and private shooting clubs.

Four Flowing Wells JROTC cadets will represent its "Caballero Battalion" in the national competition. Isidro Cabrera, eldest of the competitors, graduated from Flowing Wells this spring, team co-captain Eugene Veltre and Yerhart will be seniors next year, and Adam Murdock will be a junior.

The Flowing Wells team consists of nine cadets, however the school can enter only four shooters in the national tournament. Those who did not qualify are excited for their teammates and proud that the team was invited to compete.

"Going to nationals is a big deal," says team member Luke Miller. "It's been a dream of ours forever."

Flowing Wells JROTC has not qualified for the national competition since 1984, when the team took fourth place. Since then, only two other Arizona schools have made it to nationals, both from the Phoenix area.

The JROTC air-rifle team is a recognized school activity at Flowing Wells. Sanctioned by the Arizona Interscholastic Athletic Association, the team enjoys the same treatment as any other school athletic team. Team members must meet academic requirements and are eligible for varsity letters. The JROTC color guard and drill teams are also sanctioned.

The Caballeros compete against almost 50 other air-rifle teams from high schools around Arizona and have claimed several awards at state and regional competitions.

In both 2000 and 2001, Flowing Wells won first runner-up at state air-rifle competitions. This year the team finished fourth in the state but went on to win the Western Region Championship in San Diego, besting the three teams that outscored them in the state tournament.

DeWitt has been coach and adviser to the Flowing Wells air-rifle team since 1995. In that time, he has encouraged the students to focus on shooting as a team.

"The great thing about our team this year is that there are really no standouts," he says. "If one of our shooters was having an off day, we could replace him without missing a beat. They're all that good."

DeWitt says shooting strongly as a team is more important to team members than individual achievement.

"The team really comes together at tournaments," Miller says. "Everybody encourages each other."

May Warren, a member of Tucson Rifle Club, watches the team practice with a mixture of pride and nostalgia. A former Catalina High School rifle team member, she appreciates the effort and determination the team has displayed by qualifying for national-level competition.

Tucson Rifle Club and Friends of the National Rifle Association sponsor the Caballeros. DeWitt says these and other private groups have been supportive since learning about the Caballeros.

"Until a few weeks ago, very few people knew about us," says DeWitt. "When we were invited to nationals, I knew we would need money to get the kids there."

DeWitt says he got on the phone and called every private shooting club in Tucson. Friends of the NRA donated several new sighting scopes to the Caballeros team and are covering the cost of the cadets' hotel rooms while they compete at nationals.

The Army and the school provide the team's basic needs, but DeWitt says the sponsor organizations play an important role in the team's success by providing it with support and a sense of community.

DeWitt says most team members had little to no shooting experience before joining the air-rifle team.

Miller has been on the squad for two years. He says he didn't know anything about target shooting before joining.

"I had done a little shooting, but I was really just goofing around," he says. "Since I've been on the team I've improved a lot. I've gone from scoring in the high 100s to an average of 250 (300 is a perfect score)."

DeWitt says he isn't surprised his team was invited to compete. Since winning the regional tournament, the Caballeros have been practicing an average of three days a week.

DeWitt says before leaving for the tournament on June 12, the team will completely clean and check the rifles, replacing any worn or broken parts.

"If the equipment breaks during competition, the shooter can stop and switch rifles," says DeWitt. "But certain kids like to use certain rifles. We want them shooting with the rifle they're most comfortable with."

The shooters practice and compete with Sporter model air-rifle pellet guns. Sporters use .177-caliber pellets and must be hand-pumped between each shot. In order to meet competition guidelines, the rifles must be valued at less than $220 and be completely unmodified. Shooters cannot make any changes to the gun, including changing the sight, adjusting the weights or modifying the trigger pull. The Caballeros' rifles are well within specifications. The Army donated the 15-year-old guns to the program several years ago.

The national competition will test shooters' skills in three shooting positions: prone; offhand or standing; and kneeling.

"We're definitely weakest in prone," he says. "We haven't had enough practice."

For all three positions the shooters situate themselves 10 meters from the 9-inch by 12-inch paper targets. They must then score shots within nine concentric rings printed on the targets. The outer ring measures 1.5 inches in diameter. The center of the bullseye is approximately the size the period at the end of this sentence. Each paper target is worth 100 points, with points deducted for every shot outside the bullseye. The farther away from the bullseye, the fewer the points scored. In team competition, four shooters combine their scores for a possible team score of 1,200.

"Some of the teams we're up against have better individual shooters, but their high scores usually work to bring up the average for other, lower-scoring, teammates. All of our shooters score consistently on the high end, so our team average is naturally higher," says DeWitt.

He says the team's average score is 1,015 out of 1,200 possible points.

"As a team, we have a good chance to place in the top three," he says. "Assuming that nobody has an off day."

Yerhart says the team is trying to take it day by day until the competition. He has confidence in the team's ability and says there is no reason to be nervous.

"We're going to take nationals," he says with a grin.

NW STUDENTS DRAWN TO JROTC

The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps is a way of life at Flowing Wells High School, with 130 students set to enroll in the program this fall. Most of the southwest side of the school's campus is dedicated to the JROTC. Aside from an indoor shooting range, the Caballeros are equipped with their own expanded classroom and office, asphalt drill area, rope bridges, rock-climbing wall, and repel area.

When the program was started in 1979 the grounds were much less impressive. Over the years, the high school has provided space and materials to improve the program's accommodations. The school also maintains the buildings and provides the program with "a few hundred" dollars a year for school supplies.

The majority of the program's costs are paid by the U.S. Army.

The campus' amenities helps the program attract students from other high schools in the Northwest, not including TUSD schools.

Maj. Robert DeWitt, the program's senior instructor, began recruiting students to Flowing Wells in 1997. Since then, he said, enrollment of outside students has continually increased.

Students from as far away as Three Points commute to Flowing Wells to participate in its JROTC program.

"JROTC here is a leadership and self-esteem building program," DeWitt said. "It provides a service to the community that isn't really offered anywhere else."

While DeWitt and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald James oversee the students, DeWitt said, "The kids are really in charge of the program."

The cadets form a system of self-government, including a squadron commander, junior commander, and staff. Students are responsible for everything from logistics to public affairs. They conduct their own drills and exercises. A student review board handles minor academic and discipline issues within the squadron.

"When cadets are in trouble with grades or behavior, they appear before a review board of their peers," said DeWitt. "The review board can take action, like lowering a cadet's rank." The students are also in charge of their peers' promotion, fostering leadership and community within the group.

DeWitt said two-thirds of Flowing Wells JROTC students eventually enlist in the armed forces. Others attend military academies after graduation. Flowing Wells has sent at least one cadet to a military academy each of the last five years, including a cadet who will begin West Point this year.

"Our key focus is to provide the students with opportunities for the future," DeWitt said. "JROTC is clearly a vocational program."

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