Meet the high school rifle team that made it to nationals
One at a time, three high school juniors, guns in hand, take the “prone” position. They stealthily lie on their stomachs with one knee bent, resting on their elbows as both hands grip an air rifle. Their bodies are strong and still as they hold their aim. With one eye closed and the other peering at the target, each shooter locks in the shot and pulls the trigger. Relatively quiet shots burst out. Pellets whiz through the air and thump onto paper targets about 10 meters away in the indoor range at Reno High School.
The Reno High School Rifle Team is small, just four athletes—Kevin Behan, Bryn Preston, MaKayla Poggione and Alex Haiki. This scrappy squad bested most other Nevada teams and went to regionals in Salt Lake City earlier this year, where they ranked 11th in the nation. Their scores there propelled them to the nationals, June 21-23 in Ohio.
A rifle competition consists of each student shooting in three different positions—lying down, standing and kneeling. From each position, the athletes aim at the target and take 20 shots. Unlike targets with one big bull’s-eye, these targets have many smaller marks all over the board. When these students compete, they’re going against themselves, aiming for a personal high score. Their team goal is to garner a collective score high enough to beat out other teams.
“You’re bettering yourself while you’re shooting for the team,” Behan said. “It gives you a motive to work on yourself much more. Like, on soccer teams and football teams, they might not feel as motivated to push themselves because they’re not getting an individual score as a team. Now that we have individual and team score, it makes you motivated because you’re going to stand out.”
A different kind of group sport
Unlike other sports where teammates rely on one another to execute plays and assist one another on the field, this team plays an individual game.
They have varied backgrounds and interests. But they band together in their love of “rifle,” as they call it, where their goals are the same and they work in unison.
“I would say we all come from pretty different friend groups,” Poggione said. “We’re all really different individuals, but we all sort of come together with this one thing that we all have in common. We all really enjoy and have fun with it. Off the line, we’re all really sarcastic with each other and always messing around, but as soon as it comes time to shoot, we just stop.”
The individual nature of this sport was an adjustment for Bryn Preston, who used to dance competitively through her freshman year.
“Being on this team is different,” she said. “I quit dancing freshman year and started shooting. The switch was weird. Dance team was all about the team and being synchronized, but here it’s individual. You have to improve individually.”
Improvements are the name of the game on the rifle team. Even if the changes the students make are tiny, they can still make a significant difference. The points the athletes score with each shot have to land with pinpoint accuracy. Off a little, and they’re docked a lot. The difference between being ranked first and being eighth could be just one or two points. So, they do everything they can to fine-tune their bodies to make the shots make the mark.
Things many high-schoolers do regularly could spell disaster for these athletes’ scores. Drinking that Mountain Dew at lunch can accelerate their heart rates just enough to make them miss by a hair. Haven’t had enough water to drink? Their eyes can dry out slightly and affect their precision. Even looking at their phones can mess with their brains enough to make their shots less than stellar. So, they monitor all the things, all the time.
“We try to cut out all caffeine and all sugar as much as you possibly can for the entire season, so it won’t affect how shaky you are, how anxious you can get,” Poggione said.
The team members keep journals of their daily behaviors and nutrition, as well as every shot they take in practice, with details of how it went. The students review the journals prior to every competition, which helps them dissect their previous shots and analyze where they went wrong.
The other thing that can throw their scores off is stress. Team members say it’s hard to maintain their cool when the pressure to perform is so high, but they push themselves to focus.
All in the mind
“It’s not as much of a physical sport as it is mental,” Poggione said. “You’re just always focusing on what you can do better and little improvements to your position. All your attention has to be down the line to what you’re shooting. You can’t get emotional about what you just shot.”
For Kevin Behan, all that honing in and eliminating distractions provides him a sort of forced relaxation. He and his teammates strive to leave all emotion behind when they step up to the line.
“When we’re focusing on our shooting, we just focus on that,” Behan said. “It’s great because I don’t have to think about anything that’s happened during the day. It lets me relax. You’re forced to relax, or you won’t shoot well.”
Talk about “relaxing” while shooting a gun might sound unusual to many readers at this political moment. While polarizing national conversations about gun control continue, these students discuss shooting in terms that other athletes use to discuss, say, archery or golf. To the members of the Reno High School Rifle Team, target shooting is purely a sport, not a political endeavor. When interviewed, they considered questions about gun violence and gun control thoughtfully but struggled to articulate any policy recommendations. Collectively, these students agreed that discussions and solutions are in order, but they gave the impression that they felt ill-equipped to help provide them.
But they were, it turned out, prepared to compete in nationals. The team finished the Junior Olympics competition on June 22, 10th out of 49, with a total team score of 2,137 points and 57 bull’s-eyes. Poggione was the team’s highest shooter that day, ranking 23rd out of the 243 participants, with 19 bull’s-eyes. The second day, during the Civilian Marksmanship Program tournament, the team dropped in rank to 17th, with a total of 2,111 points and 60 bull’s-eyes. Preston shot the team’s best with an individual score of 537 points and 17 bull’s-eyes.
The team members were excited they had made it to nationals but had hoped for higher scores. They’re glad to have another chance next year, as seniors, to show what they can do.