By By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandMarch 23, 2013
ANNISTON, Ala. -- 2013 might as well be 2012.
Like it did a year ago, Ozark High School's precision team led Shelby County High School after the opening round of the JROTC National Air Rifle Championships. And as they were in 2012 during the final round of competition at the Civilian Marksmanship Program's indoor range, the Army program from Missouri and the Marine Corps program from Kentucky -- whether by coincidence or fate -- happened to shoot from firing lanes Saturday positioned right next to each other.
It was the same scenario. And the same result.
Ozark claimed its second straight precision championship, beating Shelby County 4,686 points to 4,665 points.
In the sporter division, Carl Hayden (Ariz.) High School vaulted from fourth place after the opening round to give the Army a sweep as it earned its first national title, beating East Aurora (Ill.) High School, a Navy program.
The Army also produced the top individual precision performer in Marissa Furney of Columbus (Ga.) High School.
Ozark has managed to build something of a dynasty in the sport of air rifle. In addition to the school's precision wins the last two years, its sporter squads captured national championships the two years prior to that.
The victory makes seniors like Shelby Brummett a rarity: Every year of her high school career ended with a national title. What made this win different than the other three crowns she helped secure was how close-knit the foursome became.
"We have no superstars," she said. "We're all equally strong shooters. We all enjoy it, and we have fun."
Ozark built a 13-point cushion over Shelby County after Friday's opening round, fueled in part by two near-perfect individual scores of 199 during the initial prone position. Each round required Cadets to also shoot while standing and kneeling.
Saturday got off to a queasy start as reigning Army individual champion Benjamin Estes suffered from a stomach bug that left him weak and throwing up right up until to the start of the competition. A trashcan was placed behind his firing point in case he was overcome and felt he couldn't make it to the restroom as he shot.
The illness initially seemed to have little affect as Estes reeled off a perfect score of 200 in the opening prone position. He slipped some in standing, as did his teammates, because he said he wasn't strong enough to steady his rifle completely.
The collective effort allowed Shelby County to close the gap to 10 points.
That's as close as the Marine Corps Cadets would get. From the kneeling position, Ozark shooters rebounded and won going away, led by Estes' score of 199, a point shy of perfect.
"I just went back to my training and took it shot by shot," he said.
As he does in competitions, retired 1st Sgt. Terry Thompson, Ozark's coach, shielded his Cadets from seeing their placement or score until after Saturday's final. He wanted them to remain focused on simply shooting their best.
"They were within 10 points," Thompson told his team during a post-match huddle. "You all closed the deal out."
Carl Hayden finished a distant fourth in last month's Army championships, 124 points off the pace of Killeen (Texas) High School. But as his team readied for its first shots of the national competition, senior Nestor Alvarez was adamant the program had a serious chance to win.
After all, the team was riding a wave of success after winning an Arizona state competition and had been training hard since the Army event. They hadn't come to lose.
Carl Hayden, starting Saturday in fourth, made its move during the standing portion. The 694 points the team registered was a meet best in the sporter division, propelling it toward the top.
The squad that found itself 27 points behind midway through the nationals ended up winning by 16.
"We're national champs, dude," a jubilant Mario Saenz said to teammate Alan Rodriguez, who confirmed the win through a website accessed on his smartphone. "You know how long we've been waiting for this?"
Carl Hayden shooters considered themselves underdogs entering the meet, and they believed other programs saw them that way, too. Cadets said their school doesn't have funds to purchase the sort of equipment other schools have and they had to scrape up the money to even make the trip to Alabama, getting a single room for all four squad members to sleep in.
"We just wanted to do our best," Rodriguez said. "No one expected Carl Hayden to win."
Except Alvarez. And perhaps a worker at the team hotel, who, in wishing them luck, told them several winning teams had stayed there in the past.
"We were determined," Saenz said.
"I knew we were going to win," Alvarez said.
Ozark, meanwhile, has become dominant of late both nationally and at the service level. It loses most of this year's championship team to graduation, all of whom have committed to shoot competitively in college: Brummett at Columbus State University in Georgia, Doran at the Air Force Academy and Hunt at the University of Tennessee-Martin.
Looking ahead to next season, Ozark's coach is optimistic about the team he'll field. Despite losing three of its four members, the school has other talented shooters in the program Thompson expects to shine.
"There's tons of talent, but each team is different," he said. "Hopefully, they will continue our tradition."