West Ashley Rifle team looking for 9th state championship

Jessica Leifeld is a competitive shooter on West Ashley Rifle TEam, w his is among the top high school teams in the southeast. 5/3/2012(Tyrone Walker/postandcourier.com)

When Tim Strickland prowls the hallways at West Ashley High School, looking for prospective competitors on the school’s rifle team, he’s not looking for the next Daniel Boone or Davey Crockett.

Strickland would settle instead for a Danielle Boone or even a Diana Crockett instead.

One of the things that Strickland has learned over the past decade in building one of the nation’s top rifle programs is that gender doesn’t really matter. The best hunters don’t always make the best shooters.

“I hate to say this, but most of the time I’ve got to get the Daniel Boone out of the boys because they’ve been hunting before they’ve really been taught how to shoot,” Strickland said. “There’s a huge difference between hunting and shooting a target.

“A target is smaller, so you have to be more focused and more patient. It takes longer to break someone of a bad shooting habit than it does to teach them the right way to shoot.”

West Ashley is the reigning state rifle champion. The Wildcats have won the state title eight consecutive years and are waiting on the results from last weekend’s state competition in Newberry to find out if they’ll add another award to their already crowded trophy case. About half of the Wildcats’ 12-person rifle team is made up of girls, but that’s the rule rather than the exception across the country, according to Strickland.

“Girls seem to be more focused at this point in life,” said Strickland, a naval science instructor at the school. “They tend to catch on faster than boys do.”

Ashlin Hamel, a sophomore, scoffs at the notion that boys are naturally better shots than girls. Since most teams across the state have at least one female competitor, there’s no stigma attached to being a girl on a rifle team.

“Girls have just as much capability of shooting as a guy,” Hamel said.

“I think girls are better at it. Most of the teams that we compete against have girls on them. It’s unusual to see a team without a girl.”

Hamel grew up playing cowboys and indians with her brother. Little did she know that a child’s game would lead to a spot on the school’s rile team. She was surfing the school’s website one afternoon when she stumbled onto the rifle team’s page.

“It sounded like a lot of fun,” said Hamel. “I went to the freshman orientation and I was hooked. My family knew Master Chief Strickland and that helped get me on the team.”

Jessica Leifeld, a junior, said she went turkey hunting with her father a couple of times when her family lived in Kansas. She said she never came close to hitting a turkey.

“My dad took me hunting a few times, but I was not a very good shooter back then,” Leifeld said.

These days, Leifeld can hit a bull’s eye the size of a pin hole from 33 feet away with her air rifle.

“You need a steady hand and you need to control your breathing,” Leifeld said. “And then, lots and lots and lots of practice.”

The Wildcats practice every other day for a couple of hours each session. Leifield and Hamel figure they shoot between 50 and 80 shots per practice.

Then there are the meets — as many as 15 to 20 per season — which take place almost exclusively on weekends. The time commitment can be more than some athletes and their parents can handle.

“It takes a huge commitment from the athletes and their parents,” Strickland said. “We’re gone a lot of weekends and they miss out on other stuff that other kids are doing. You have to be dedicated to the team.”

The Wildcats should find out this week if they’ve qualified for the July’s national championship in Anniston, Ala.

It would be the seventh straight year the Wildcats have qualified for the national championships.

“You build a program like this by getting kids that want to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Strickland said. “Success breeds success. You see the sign out front of the school about how many times we’ve been state champions and kids want to be a part of that.”