Hempfield rifle team aims to defend WPIAL championship

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022 | 9:42 AM


Ping … ping …

“Matt, keep that elbow in tight, bud! Where ya at?”

With his first relay team of the day taking aim, Hempfield rifle coach Jason Wilkinson looks through a telescope at a magnified view of the targets as the hollow, pinging sound of the Anschutz 22 long-range rifles periodically are heard.

“Top!” Spartans freshman Matt Steiner responds.

“Counter on the top. Continue,” Wilkinson directs, referring to a counter-clockwise sight correction.

Ping …

“Brooke, what did you see?”

Sophomore Brooke Fanala remains still and answers, “Center!”

“OK, don’t rush ’em, Brooke, ’K?”

Ping … ping …

“Clock 1 on the top. Continue,” Wilkinson says, instructing the young teen to adjust her sight clockwise by one notch.

Ping …

“Looks good,” he says.

So it was going, back and forth, the dialogue between coaches and shooters at a WPIAL rifle match between Hempfield and visiting Butler at the Keystone Rod and Gun Club in Hannastown.

Ping …

Hempfield assistant Pat Valenti chimes in: “You’re moving your muscle!”

Ping … ping …

“All right, top center. Check everything!” adds Wilkinson.

Despite their prodding, Wilkinson and Valenti watched Butler hand the Spartans their first loss by a score of 800-65x to 798-51x in a WPIAL nonsection event.

Wilkinson later would say: “Butler shot one heckuva match.”

One-by-one, the participants filed into the club, a converted church building near Totteridge Golf Club. Both teams interacted during a relaxed atmosphere. Butler appeared to be gathering its thoughts after more than an hour-long bus ride.

“Usually, we try to get started as close to 3 o’clock as we can, but we count on beginning in the 3-to-3:30 range,” Wilkinson says. “It takes a lot of time to get through one of these matches.”

Wilkinson, who operates Jason Wilkinson Nurseries Inc. in Armbrust, said the chance to lead Hempfield’s rifle team is as rewarding as it is frustrating. He said he needs to be at the business his family has run since 1932 for as much as he can.

Sometimes, he hates to leave, but …

“You have to drop everything you’re doing to be at the range Monday through Friday,” he said. “I could never do it from spring through fall. It’s really difficult come Christmas time. The amount of stuff you have to do anymore … you’re not just coaching the kids.”

Wilkinson, who is in his fourth season as coach, directed the Spartans to a WPIAL championship in 2021. He took over the program in 2018 after serving five seasons as an assistant to former coach Tom Miller, who retired after 14 years as Hempfield’s coach.

“They were having a very difficult time finding a coach,” Wilkinson said. “I did not want to see it get shut down. That was a major concern of mine. That’s how I saw it. Tom stayed around to help me pass the torch (in 2018). He came in and stayed for a few weeks so the kids could get through the change. He’d been around a long time and made great relationships with every one of them.”

Most of the shooters are from families who traditionally are outdoors enthusiasts. A sampling of Hempfield team members revealed that various relatives are active in hunting season. Some said they had aspirations of joining the military upon graduation.

All simply shrugged at the notion of Olympic-style sports, such as rifle, being virtually non-existent to the school’s student body.

“It’s not very recognized in our school,” Hempfield freshman Lily Silvis said. “They put so much play on (mainstream sports).”

Some, of which she noted, aren’t consistently successful.

“And then, you have us here winning (nearly) every match this year,” she said.

Wilkinson, despite his hectic schedule, has shown a genuine interest in his kids. Having been an avid shooter and hunter his entire life also aids in his motivation.

“Seeing these kids do what they do, you get a big attachment to them,” he said. “I want to see these kids succeed. I’m fortunate this year to have a good group.”

High school rifle rosters generally consist of 10 varsity shooters and six at the JV level.

In Hempfield’s case, Wilkinson said, “It could switch from week to week,” referring to who keeps their spot on the varsity team.

“If they get beat and try their best, I couldn’t care less. If they mope or slouch, that’s when I get upset with them.”

The top eight scores among the 10 varsity shooters are counted to determine the match score.

Shooters operate what Wilkinson described as “the prone position, laying down.”

They shoot wearing a shooting jacket and sling.

“It’s an extremely uncomfortable position to be in,” Wilkinson said. “If you’re in the correct position, your hand will be asleep in 2 minutes. You’ll have no feeling.”

Targets are 50 feet from the shooting pads. Bull’s-eyes are the size of a 22-caliber bullet.

Aperture sights, also known as peep sights, are attached to the guns. They are a combination of a bead or post front sight and a round hole set on the rifle’s receiver, which is close to the shooter’s eye.

By aiming at the target, shooters center it in the rear peep or aperture sight before bringing the front sight into the center of the hole. An aperture sight allows shooters more accuracy and are adjusted more easily than an open sight.

“I’ve been doing this sport since I was 8 or 9,” said Hempfield co-captain Lydia Dunn, one of eight seniors on the team. “Before I got onto the team, it never really progressed. Nothing got better. No one helped me until I got here. I just got thrown into it and everyone helped me and got me comfortable, and I’ve been on the varsity team ever since my freshman year.”

Another senior co-captain, Amanda Hardman, is happy she stayed with the team after a rough start as a freshman.

“This is a very unique sport,” she said. “I was honestly not going to do it. And then, I looked at an upperclassman who was a senior and she got me into it. I started out horribly. I was shooting so badly and one day I told my coach I was going to quit and go back on the volleyball team. He said he’d work with me and if I still didn’t want to do it, I could leave.”

“One night, it all clicked. It was my freshman year. It was so fun just going to the matches and shooting against other teams and winning. That was the best feeling ever.”

Hardman was just getting started, she said. That “best-feeling” sensation carried over to the postseason, where Hempfield has won five WPIAL titles — all since 2010.

The Spartans, after claiming the 2021 championship, placed third at the Pennsylvania State Scholastic Smallbore Rifle Championships. The event, not sanctioned by the PIAA, is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Rifle and Pistol Association.

“When the WPIALs came around and me being a freshman and shooting at WPIALs, that definitely, really got to me,” Hardman said. “After that, I fell in love with the sport.”

Dunn last season finished sixth among 41 shooters in the state competition.

Senior Logan McKivens joins Dunn and Hardman as Hempfield co-captains this season.

“Throughout their time here, ever since ninth grade, they’ve listened,” Wilkinson said. “They don’t argue, and they have extreme concentration. You’ve got to be able to shoot under pressure, no doubt. All three are team players.”

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