Imagine a drinking straw stuck to the wall at a 90-degree angle, 33 feet away. The goal: Shoot a pellet down the middle of that straw.
The catch: For a perfect score, the pellet cannot touch the straw.
"It's not as easy as it sounds," chuckles William Smith, coach of The Citadel's rifle team.
Yet that is the daily goal of members of the Bulldogs' men's and women's rifle team, who chase perfection inside The Citadel's top-of-the line, $3.2 million shooting range on campus. The range is complete with a $125,000 computer scoring system that makes it perhaps the top college facility of its kind in the nation.
The Bulldogs have come a long way since they held matches in Room 214 of Deas Hall, shooting across a desk at paper targets at the other end of the classroom.
"This is a little bit nicer," said Smith, who has been The Citadel's coach for 12 years.
The Daniel K. Inouye Hall Markmanship Center, named for the U.S. Senator from Hawaii who helped get the range built, is a remarkably quiet place during a rifle match.
A thick bullet-proof window separates the 16 firing positions from spectators. Each shooting station is equipped with a computer monitor, so that shooters can track their scores in real time (fans off-site can do the same at citadelmatchscores.com).
But then, rifle is not exactly a spectator sport. When national power Alaska-Anchorage visited for a recent match, the crowd was made up of coaches and a stray reporter.
"I tried to get my dad to watch on TV during the Olympics," said freshman Robert Jackson, one of the Bulldogs' top shooters. "He got up and left after five minutes."
On the range, each shooter wears ear plugs and disappears into his or her own little world while taking 60 shots in up to an hour and 45 minutes.
"It's a good way to calm down," said Julie O'Meara, a junior from Indianapolis who is The Citadel's first female drillmaster and will enter the Marines after graduation. "Taking as many class hours as I do, you get really stressed. Coming in here and focusing on a target and nothing else in the world, it's really calming."
As with golf, most of this game is played between the ears.
"You don't have to be real athletic to play well," said Jackson. "You need small motor skills, the ability to control your breath and your emotions. The biggest thing is not to focus on your score and how well you are shooting. As soon as you do that, it goes down the drain. You just have to go one shot at a time -- get in position, check the position, get your breathing under control, get the target in your sights and put pressure on the trigger."
Cadets have been following that drill at The Citadel for many years. The Bulldogs won national rifle championships in 1939, 1953, 1963 and 1965, and took eight Southern Conference titles from 1960-74.
But the team dropped to club level in 1992, and when Smith's predecessor left 12 years ago, the program was on the verge of shutting down. That's when, Smith joked, The Citadel "conned me into coaching."
"It will just be two afternoons a week, they told me," said Smith, who had been coaching juniors at local gun club. "But I really enjoy it, and it's given me a new direction in life."
The rifle team returned to varsity status with men's and women's teams in 2002, and the 12,000-foot Inouye Center was finished in 2005. The range also is used by the S.C. National Guard, Citadel ROTC students and the school's club pistol team.
"It's made a huge difference," Smith said. "It helps in recruiting, and it helps attract national level teams to come in here. We've had Alaska-Anchorage, Mississippi, Air Force, TCU, Nevada-Reno, all the top teams. This is probably the top facility in the country."
If not for the NCAA's recognition of the NAACP's Confederate flag boycott of South Carolina, Smith said, The Citadel's facility could host the NCAA rifle championships.
"Believe me, I've tried," said Smith, who just finished four years on the NCAA rifle committee.
Smith gets 1.5 scholarships for each of his men's and women's teams (the NCAA maximum is a combined 3.6), and the equipment is not cheap. Air rifles go for about $3,200 and small-bore rifles for $4,200, and The Ciatdel has about 15 of each. The supportive gear the shooters wear costs anywhere from $900 for basic gear to $3,000 for an Olympic quality outfit.
"We've had to beg and borrow," Smith said of the team's rifles. "But I haven't stolen one yet."
The Citadel won a Southeastern Air Rifle Conference title last year, and Smith hopes to qualify an individual shooter and then a team for the NCAA championships in the next couple of years.
Something to aim for, aside from that drinking straw.
The center of the target is a point the size of a pencil lead in a circle about the diameter of a drinking straw (inside the 8).×
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