ANNISTON, Ala. -- They came from places like Carl Hayden High School in Arizona, Walhalla High School in South Carolina and as far away as Patch High School in Germany. Their backgrounds were as varied as their coaches, and their equipment ranged from simple to complex. But there was one thing they had in common--they were all gathering Feb. 9-11 in Anniston, Ala,. for the 2012 Army Junior ROTC Air Rifle Championship.

Thursday opened with registration, weapons check-in and an opportunity to practice before the competition started Friday. This was the last chance the participants would have to fine tune their weapons, and work out any last minute kinks.

Coaches like retired Sgt 1st Class John Cordera-Torres, from Phoenix, Ariz., spent the day watching his students' shooting form, talking them through mental blocks and fixing weapons jams.

"We got here by shooting really well--we tied for 5th among Army teams," he explained. "We've only had the program for three years. We only have one senior and we finished 3rd in the brigade."

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Reiss Pellegrino, Sarasota Military Academy, spent part of the day orienting his three freshman and three sophomores to the range and how the competition would work.

"I had two students who graduated last year and went on to college programs to shoot. One is at the Citadel and one is at Jacksonville State University," Pellegrino said. He also has a former Junior ROTC student who swims for West Virginia. "The things the kids learn in the program transcends (competition) shooting and helps them in life."

Students like Jacob Smith, Tessa Howald, Makennon Doran, Jenna Bethea and Stormy Sanders all came to the competitions with their own ideas and their own goals.

For Sanders, who is from Shreveport, La., this competition is part of a building block--her continued steps toward a college scholarship. If it wasn't for Junior ROTC, she doesn't think she would have a shot at higher education, because she wouldn't be as involved in school or her community.

Smith, a senior at Georgia Military Academy, is headed into the military when he graduates high school in a few months and this competition is part of his last in Junior ROTC, and he would like to do well. Although his coach is never far, Smith carries a sort of talisman for luck--and for purpose.

"A Marine from church, Sal Pertenza, gave me a medallion, an M-1 Garand repair tool, and a P38 can opener for food rations, when I signed up for (the military)," Smith explained. He wears all three around his neck on a twisted piece of twine.

"It was carried in World War II by (Sal's) brother--the Pacific theater--and carried in Korea by Sal. Now it will be carried by me--maybe to Afghanistan," he said. "To me it means that since he is a Marine it feels like a piece of acceptance--feels like I belong."

Howald and Doran, from Ozark High School, are using this competition as a stepping stone as well--to college and for something bigger.

Both students want to use their skills to earn a scholarship to college--ones with marksmanship programs. Howald is looking at Murray State or Texas Christian. And Doran is looking at West Point Military Academy or West Virginia University.

But they also have something a little bigger in mind--representing the United States as Olympic athletes.

"We both shot junior Olympic qualifier from Missouri, which entitles us to go to Colorado Springs and shoot in the national junior Olympic qualifier," Howald explained. "That might get us an invitation to the Olympic development team."

Bethea, from Georgia Military Academy, also has Olympic dreams.

"I'm so excited because so much has happened over the last year," Bethea said. "I started shooting well, I'm working harder, and decided that the Olympics were going be a goal of mine."

Her coach, Mary Ellen Eaton, said she has been working with Bethea on all aspects of her shooting, and trying to get her in as many competitions as possible so Bethea can get the experience. This competition will be one more that she can add to her list for experience.

Whether the students are here for the benefits of being part of a team, here as a stepping stone to bigger things, or for the competition, they showed up Friday morning ready to add to their list of accomplishments and hopeful to qualify for the next level--the All Services Competition held in March.