High school rifle season looks different this year

Saturday, January 23, 2021 | 8:18 PM

Over the past three winters, Madison Herrick enjoyed traveling to different schools for rifle matches with her Plum teammates.

The Mustangs senior captain, a veteran of the WPIAL individual championship meet, said though WPIAL’s move to virtual matches for regular-season competition with no travel is out of the norm, it kept teams competing while also making sure everyone was as safe as possible.

“Being able to compete at all makes me extremely happy,” Herrick said. “I do most definitely miss meeting new people and learning new techniques from other teams that comes with (in-person competition), but a change like this was expected. There has been so much uncertainty for all high school sports over the past year in whether or not the seasons would happen. It’s definitely worth going through everything and working with the changes to have our season.”

The 12 WPIAL rifle teams, along with those from basketball, swimming, wrestling, hockey and gymnastics, waited out the three-week shutdown ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf as part of overall efforts to stem covid-19 spread.

The season kicked off Jan. 12. Each team competes against the other three teams in its section twice with chances for the shooters to test their mettle in additional nonsection matches.

“We discussed (virtual vs. in-person matches) as coaches, and early on, we decided that the safest thing would be the virtual matches,” said Matt Rodrigues, Woodland Hills coach and the chairperson of the WPIAL rifle steering committee.

“I know the changes have been tough. A lot of the kids who compete for four years really get to know each other well from the section matches and the championships. Even though they might be on rival schools, they become great friends. It’s the same with the coaches. Some of my best friends are these coaches who are my biggest competition. It kind of hurts to not have that in-person interaction, but we had to do what we could to keep everyone as safe as possible. Everyone appreciates that there is a safe way to conduct these matches.”

The teams – 10 of the 12 – conduct practices and matches using a computer-based service – Orion Scoring System – to read, tally and produce results from a shooter’s time on the range.

The targets contain a bar code sticker with the shooter’s identification. When the shooter is finished, the target is scanned into the computer system. The program uses a decimal scoring system and is able to read minute detail on a target for accurate scoring. With the ability to analyze each shot, the technology gives coaches and their shooters a new perspective, Plum coach Bob Davis said.

“It does it the same for everyone,” said Davis, who noted that money saved on what would be normal travel to matches at other schools paid for the system at Plum.

“It’s a level playing field. Every target gets scored exactly the same way. There is a computer algorithm in there that determines what the shot is worth. It takes the guess work out of reading the targets. They’ve been using it at the individual and team championships for the past five or six years.”

Davis said that taking out the travel element actually helps his shooters maintain a comfort level they have in their own range.

“The targets are the same, and when you look through the scope, all you can see is the bull’s-eye anyway,” Davis said. “The distance is the same.”

While virtual matches rule the regular-season, when it comes time for WPIAL team and individual championships, set for Feb. 16 and 18, respectively, the teams and individuals will travel to the Dormont/Mt. Lebanon Sportsman Club for in-person competition.

Rodrigues said the format for the championship events will have the teams separated throughout the day.

“We’re going to spread it out,” Rodrigues said. “We will set it up to where there will only be a couple teams ever in one place at one time. The way the range is set up, they added a huge new space, and we can work it out so it is as safe as possible for everyone.”

For the team championships, the top two teams from each of the three four-team sections will qualify.

Butler, in Section 3 with Plum, Armstrong and Indiana, is the defending WPIAL champion.

A new WPIAL individual champion will be crowned as West Greene’s Sheyann Watson, who won last year’s WPIAL title, graduated.

The individual championships will invite five of the top shooters from each of the 12 teams, with single shooters also representing schools that do not sponsor rifle as a team sport.

“Teams are down in numbers to different degrees, like most other sports are, and scores may not be what they normally are in some cases, but the important thing has been giving the kids at each school the ability to practice and compete,” Rodrigues said.

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.


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