Despite guns and schools debate, participation on high school rifle teams is increasing
Landon Badac first picked up a gun at around 4 years old.
“My grandpa, who was a big influence in my life in the outdoors, taught me how to shoot very early, gun safety, and how to live in the outdoors, pretty much,” the Armstrong High School senior explained. “He’s a very avid hunter, and I’ve been hunting with him ever since then.”
Badac picked up his grandfather’s habits, becoming a frequent hunter and fisherman himself.
And when he heard his high school was starting a rifle program, he said he “signed up as soon as the first meeting.”
Rifle is one of five sports the WPIAL oversees during the winter season, with championships dating to 1942.
The annual WPIAL team championships will take place Tuesday, with the individual championships Thursday.
And even in a time of uncertainty regarding guns and schools, the sport has seen growth in recent years in Western Pennsylvania.
Armstrong will become the WPIAL’s 16th full-time rifle program when it becomes an official member of the league in 2019-20; the River Hawks are a probationary member this season, competing with an exhibition schedule.
Penn-Trafford, Waynesburg and West Greene also added programs in recent seasons.
“A lot of the kids that are joining the program are kids that are hunters, or their parents take them to the ranges, so they’re a little bit familiar with guns and everything,” Penn-Trafford coach Diana Long said. “That has a lot to do with it. A lot of them just hear about the overall program. A lot of the kids who I had for the first four years talked the program up and tried to get a lot of their friends interested.”
While several of the schools that offer rifle programs hail from rural areas — Armstrong, Avella, Trinity, Waynesburg and West Greene, for instance — more suburban schools like Plum, Hempfield, Butler, Mt. Lebanon and Woodland Hills have teams, too. The former Munhall High School won 23 WPIAL championships between 1942 and 1969.
Hempfield won the team title last season, its third since 2010.
“Rifle is a team sport, but it’s all individual effort,” Plum coach Bob Davis said. “It’s whatever the individual participant puts into it. If they want to stay dedicated to it and they work hard at it, they’ll succeed, and the team will succeed with them. If they don’t and they take it lightly, then they won’t. It’s all about making exactly the same shot 10 times in a row.”
The Armstrong School Board approved its program by unanimous vote in June.
“Basically, it should have been done 40 years ago was the general consensus,” Armstrong coach Chris Robbins said.
Robbins, a corporal for the state police in Kittanning, said the community support was “out of this world.” He secured a grant from the Armstrong County Friends of the NRA organization to buy five .22-caliber rifles, and donations from local people and businesses provided enough money for seven more.
“In today’s political climate, the mere mention of high school and shooting and all of that in the same sentence kind of throws people for a spin,” Robbins said. “Once we explain to everybody what we’re doing — we’re not teaching them combat shooting, we’re not teaching them stock and sniper training.
“We’re teaching them mental discipline and physical concentration, and it just so happens they’re shooting a .22. These aren’t granddad’s squirrel rifles.”
The WPIAL requires all of its rifle programs to follow all safety measures at their ranges. Coaches need certification, and Robbins said members of the team are taught full etiquette before even touching a gun.
“It’s the safest sport there is,” Robbins said. “My son is on the team, my youngest son. He got a concussion in football. He’s not getting a concussion shooting rifle. The worst that can happen is he trips and falls in the parking lot.”
That doesn’t mean there’s not push-back. Penn-Trafford keeps rifle as a club program, so Long is an unpaid coach and the students provide their own transportation to practices and competitions.
The school also does not have a team photo on its website because, Long said, three of her competitors are holding rifles.
“We are a rifle team,” she said. “I don’t know exactly how else we would display that. At times it’s a little upsetting and discouraging because out of all the sports in the school, I have no injury report for five years straight.”
Long, an instructor at the Murrysville Gun Club for nearly two decades, extols the virtues of a sport that requires discipline and concentration and where anyone can participate.
Seven of the past 10 WPIAL individual champions are female.
“It’s a sport that’s starting to open up so it can accommodate all kinds of participants,” Long said. “It’s not a sport where you have to be athletically fit to do. You can be tall, skinny, short, fat — it doesn’t matter.
“You can be a boy or a girl. I like that it is a coed sport. Nobody’s singled out.”
Staff photographer Louis Ruediger contributed to this report. Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at [email protected] or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.