“Always do what you’ve always done and you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten,” said Jake Mears, a 17-year-old Saltillo resident.
That’s a reminder that the same things that bring success during practice will bring success in competition.
It’s something 17-year-old Tori Blake tries to keep in mind, too. She practically lives across the street from Whitetail Ridge, and she’s been shooting with 4-H for about eight years.
“Don’t worry about anybody else,” she said. “I try to do things the right way every time. I just do my best and hope everything comes out the way I want it.”
On April 28, about 300 kids competed in the District Shooting Sports Contest at Whitetail Ridge. Six young Lee County shooters earned the right to compete at the state championships, which will be July 13-14 in Woolmarket.
Mears and Blake will compete with .22 pistols. Austin Bond qualified with shotgun, along with Jamarcus Grice and Nate Flynn. Justin Turnage will compete in archery. Flynn, Chancy Griffin and Dillon Hall also qualified in archery but won’t compete.
“They’re not just competing against other kids. They’re competing against themselves. They try to get better. They kind of get mad at themselves when they don’t do well,” said Belvia Giachelli, Lee County Extension agent. “The key to it is practice. Sometimes, they decide they want to do something else and they don’t come to practice. They’re not going to Woolmarket with us.”
Of course, there are reasons why a kid might miss an 8 a.m. practice on a Saturday.
“We compete with boyfriends and jobs and girlfriends and summer camps,” Giachelli said. “I guess one of our biggest obstacles is church activities, which I guess is a good thing. We compete against golf, baseball and softball. They have a lot of demands for their time.”
Blake said she’s interested in other activities, but shooting exerts its own pull.
“I love to shoot. It’s my hobby,” she said, shrugging. “This is what I do.”
There are more than 40 kids in the club, which is open to ages 8 to 18. The youngest ones start with air rifle, air pistol and archery. As they get older, they also can compete in .22 pistol, .22 rifle and shotgun.
“We’re not trying to produce professional shots here,” said Dan Dixon, president of Lee County 4-H Shooting Sports advisory board. “We’re trying to teach gun safety.”
Before stepping onto a range, each participant must complete eight hours of safety training. Safety glasses and earplugs are required, and guns are unloaded until just before shooting. Volunteers are on hand to supervise.
“It took a while to get volunteers and to get them trained,” Giachelli said. “We’ve got a good group now.”
“The parents help out a lot,” Dixon added. “Our parents are always here.”
Both of 15-year-old Austin Bond’s parents were at the range on a recent Saturday morning while he practiced his shotgun technique.
“You try to stay focused and not worry that you missed one,” the Saltillo resident said, before shooting skeet with his 12-gauge Remington. “Once you worry that you missed one, it goes down hill from there.”
He’s been with 4-H for about three years, but guns are a family affair.
“He’s actually been shooting since he was little,” Connie Bond said about her son. “He started hunting with his dad and his granddad.”
Randy Mears serves as coach for his son, Jake, who competes with a .22 pistol.
“That pistol was mine. I found it. I bought it. It was mine,” Randy Mears said with a laugh and a shake of his head. “We got into this, and he started referring to it as his.”
Father and son keep track of scores, and well-hit targets are saved for posterity. Randy Mears also hopes his son learns lessons that will apply away from the firing range.
“You can take it into any part of life you want,” he said. “Everybody wants to be a straight shooter or be known as a straight shooter.”
With the state championships only a couple of weeks away, this is an intense time for volunteers, parents and kids who will be traveling to Woolmarket.
After the competition, many of the kids will continue to push themselves to get better. There’s a good chance that desire to improve will last well after they’ve aged out of the 4-H club.
As Bond said, “This is a lifelong thing. I plan to do this the rest of my life.”