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Riflery as Varsity Sport Hits Mark For Ga. Students

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Fairburn, Ga.

Junk food is not part of their diet. Soft drinks with caffeine? No way.

After all, the slightest shift in metabolism could cause a muscle to twitch or the heart to thump a bit too fast.

When you are on the Creekside High School air-rifle team in Georgia--four-time winner of the nation's only state high school rifle championship--you know that the slightest movement can ruin a carefully aimed shot.

"People come in here and say, 'I can hit a deer from 100 yards,'" said Micah Cooper, a sophomore on the Seminole squad. "But in here, you're shooting at a pinhead."

He is one of hundreds of Georgia high school students who are taking aim at riflery as a varsity sport--a reflection both of recent rule changes and of the popularity of recreational gun use in the state.

In a nation where many communities are trying desperately to keep guns out of their schools, some critics view Georgia's sponsorship of shooting as ironic and even alarming.

But its supporters stress that riflery is a sport above all else--one that imposes rigorous safety standards and that demands discipline, training, and concentration.

'Purely a Sport'

Just ask Corey Hitchcock, the 1995 state champion from Creekside High, about 20 miles south of Atlanta. "I can't play football, baseball, or basketball," the 17-year-old marksman proudly told a recent visitor to the school. "But I can shoot."

Supporters of the sport note that shooting sports will draw about 430 athletes to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

"I realize guns per se can be controversial but here we see this purely as a sport," said Phillip A. Williams, the director of the 1995 state riflery championship.

"There's been no problem with it at all," agreed Tom Guillebeau, the executive director of the Georgia High School Association, which sanctions state sports. "It's not that it's endorsing guns, but endorsing marksmanship."

Renewed Interest

By offering air rifles as a varsity sport in 1992 along with traditional .22-caliber competition, Georgia officials began reversing a steady decline in the number of varsity riflery teams.

The first .22-caliber championship was held in 1944. But stringent and expensive environmental requirements for shooting ranges drove many schools out of the sport in recent years.

Allowing air rifles reversed the trend. Now, schools can set up a shooting range inside a large classroom, and air rifles have replaced the .22-caliber rifles in most schools with teams.

Unlike firearms, which use an explosion of gunpowder to speed a bullet to its target, air rifles rely on compressed air to propel a small lead pellet.

Competition distance is 33 feet, 6 inches. Loud bangs are replaced by mere "phpts." The small, inexpensive .177-caliber pellets are easily absorbed by the cloth and steel backing of targets.

About 700 Georgia students competed as members of 63 high school air-rifle teams this year, and 12 new teams are expected next year.

Just 16 schools had .22-caliber rifle teams during the 1994-95 school year---a number so low that their state championship has been dropped.

Besides golf, riflery is the only varsity sport in which boys and girls compete together. Mr. Williams, who coaches at the private St. Thomas of Aquinas High School in Augusta, had four girls on his team who qualified for the 1994 state championship.

The revival in Georgia has drawn notice in the shooting world outside the state.

Gary L. Anderson, the manager of shooting competition for the 1996 Olympics, said Georgia can be a model for other states.

"If its popularity and success in Georgia is any indication of its potential in other states, then the future of high school rifle shooting is actually quite encouraging," the two-time Olympic gold-medal winner wrote in a recent newsletter.

Alaska, New York, and Pennsylvania are the only other states that sanction high school riflery. Only Georgia, with the largest number of schools participating, offers a state championship.

But Mr. Anderson's enthusiasm for the sport is not universal.

Guns in Schools?

Harold Jordan, for one, does not share it.

"I don't think that people should learn how to shoot weapons in school. To do that is crazy," said Mr. Jordan, a Georgia native who is an anti-violence advocate for a national Quaker service organization.

He criticizes the sport's ties to the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and questions the premise that gun use should be endorsed in schools. Mr. Jordan works in Philadelphia as the coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee National Youth and Militarism Program.

In April, the group published a report on the Army J.R.O.T.C. curriculum, citing concerns that such programs divert education funds from other programs and introduce weapons into schools.

All but a handful of Georgia varsity rifle teams are run through J.R.O.T.C. programs--mostly because the programs either pay for the expensive equipment or get it donated through military and other sources.

Mr. Williams, however, is trying to expand the sport to non-J.R.O.T.C. programs by showing that schools can afford a rifle team on their own.

A basic target air rifle can cost as little as $150, though Creekside High's rifles--most of which are owned by the military--cost about $900 each. Teams average from 10 to 15 members. Ten dollars buys about 1,000 pellets.

Riflery is covered as part of a school's overall athletic-insurance coverage. The sport is not singled out for high premiums, said Mr. Williams, who claims it is safer than cheerleading.

Neither separating riflery from J.R.O.T.C. nor evidence of the sport's safety, however, mollifies Mr. Jordan. The United States is rife with gun-related violence, he said, and gun training in schools "desensitizes people to the consequences of the use of force."

Promoting Discipline

Gary Schyck, the principal of 950-student Creekside High, said no one has complained about the sport during his four years here.

"It's like a microcosm of what we try to do in school in terms of commitment to a goal and discipline," he said.

Despite its upswing in popularity here, riflery is not likely to surpass more conventional athletic events as a spectator sport.

Most matches are held in cramped cinder-block classrooms where silence and concentration approach a religious intensity. And while that is demanding on athletes, said one coach, "it's about as exciting for spectators as watching paint dry."

Still, the Creekside Seminoles and their fans say shooting deserves more respect, starting with broader recognition of riflery as a sport.

"Some people think you're not an athlete if you don't run and do exercise," said Linda Hitchcock, who saved $750 to help her son, Corey, buy a $1,500 German-made target rifle.

She said her son, who learned to shoot with his father, a former Marine, wants to be in the Olympics some day. "I'll be right there with him when he does."

An Arduous Season

The team members do not run or jump or do much of anything that might raise their blood pressure. Still, theirs is a demanding sport nonetheless.

The season runs from August through May, and the shooters practice at least 90 minutes a day, five days a week, from January to May, and somewhat less frequently in the fall.

During that time, their powder-blue classroom becomes a sanctuary of relaxation and focus.

In their padded jackets, thick cotton pants, and special, flat-soled shoes, the athletes lie prone, kneel, or stand as they train their heavy, 10-pound rifles on a bull's-eye the size of a grain of salt.

In between shots, they might lie on their backs with their eyes closed, relaxing muscles or visualizing the perfect shot.

Safety instruction and shooting tips come from Larry Pendergrass, a retired Army major who is the coach and Creekside J.R.O.T.C. director.

Each session, he unlocks the large olive-green safe holding the guns and passes out the rifles to his team.

He is so strict about safety, he said, that he once discontinued practice and locked his athletes outside the classroom so he could go to the bathroom.

Most Fail To Finish

And yes, he really does discourage junk food and caffeine. "The idea is not to eliminate sugar, but the sugar high," Mr. Pendergrass said.

If this all sounds demanding, apparently it is. Twenty-four students started the season last fall. Nine finished.

Matthew Eidson, a senior and the former leader of a Christian rock band, had never handled guns before joining J.R.O.T.C. and the Creekside rifle team four years ago. This year, he was one of the state's top shooters.

His father, Steve Eidson, said members of the family had never been heavily involved with guns and were wary when his son talked about the yearlong sport and giving up junk food.

"It was really tough, and we didn't think he could do it," said Mr. Eidson. "But he has proved us wrong."

Todd Fleming, a senior, said he learned to shoot from his father and grandfather, who took him hunting as a child.

"Rifle shooting has put more focus in my life," he said. "People who know about rifle shooting know it's one of the best things that could happen to a high school student."

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