Photo by Chet Strange/The American Legion

Legion names top 16 youth advancing to air rifle finals

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Thirty of the top high school marksmen from across the country stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the firing line at the USA Shooting Range to compete in The American Legion’s 27th annual Junior 3-Position Air Rifle Championships, which was held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., on July 21. The top eight in both the precision and sporter category walked away from the line with a secured spot in Saturday’s championship round, where they will vie for a chance to win first place in their respective category and a $5,000 scholarship.

Precision shooter Emily Stith currently has a 12-point lead heading into the final round as she makes her second American Legion air rifle championship appearance. This competition was the first final Stith of Colorado Springs ever competed in, and she always knew she wanted to come back.

“This is such a great competition; everybody here get so close,” said Stith, who is currently training at the USA Shooting Range three to four days a week. Since she competed two years ago, she said her mentality and confidence has improved. “You made it, you are the top 15 in each category in the country. That was one of the things that was hard for me to grasp. (For confidence) you have to remember that you’re here and people are here to watch a good shooter. So tomorrow is going to be a confidence boost.”

The 15 competitors in both the precision and sporter category have been competing in two matches a day since Thursday, taking 20 shots in the prone, standing and kneeling position. The competitors qualified for the Legion’s national competition after advancing through the individual postal match tournament that involved more than 1,500 other air rifle marksmen.

Hailey Smith initially thought she wanted to join her high school’s drill team to spin rifles. But once she learned she could fire them, her position changed and she joined Zion (Ill.) Benton High School’s Navy JROTC program. Now, Smith holds the No. 1 position in the sporter category with an eight-point lead. The Illinois Auxiliary Girls State alum said the Legion’s competition has made her realize how much stamina she has built over her four years of shooting.

“To shoot four matches in two days is a lot; it’s nothing I’ve ever done before. To prepare I was shooting a lot of three by 20 matches just to get used to the feel of things,” Smith said. “I also would add on another layer of clothing just to simulate how hot it might be when we got down in the range.”

No matter her placement in tomorrow’s final round, Smith said that the Legion’s tournament has also “taught me to have fun, make new friends. And it’s really cool to shoot here.”

A common sentiment amongst the current and former Legion air rifle competitors is how the tournament leaves you with lasting friendships. The 2013 American Legion precision champion Rachel Martin has found this to be true.

“A lot of people that I met at this match I’m still friends with today,” said Martin, who recently graduated from the University of Nebraska and is now a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center. She also said the Legion’s air rifle tournament was one of her favorite matches. “It taught me a lot about hard work and how to have that competitive edge but also to have a really good time and learn to be nice to your competitors and help them out.”

Martin competed three times in the Legion’s air rifle championships, placing ninth and fifth before earning first place. She said practicing twice a day for the tournament helped her capture the win. Now, she is practicing daily on her position to earn a spot on the Olympic shooting team.

“I want to get to where shooting is my sport; it’s almost like a dance and you have to figure out your partner, which is your gun,” Martin said. “Sometimes you don’t make good partners and that makes your match really hard. So I’m working on getting that to be a little more cohesive.”

Since arriving in Colorado Springs earlier in the week, the 30 Legion air rifle participants enjoyed a dinner at American Legion Post 209 and tonight they are having a pizza social to help ease any nerves going into tomorrow’s final match.

This is Annabelle Stanec’s first American Legion air rifle competition and what the precision shooter has found that’s “unique and special” about this tournament compared to others is that it’s run by veterans. And Saturday’s tournament for Stanec of Ohio is “about trying my hardest,” she said. “Do the best I can and trust myself with each shot that I take.”

Follow scoring for the competition’s final round Saturday at 9 a.m. Mountain Time here.

The following are the top eight finalists in each category, along with their team and score:

Precision

Emily Stith of Colorado, NTCS Altius – 2,373

Annabelle Stanec of Ohio, Ashland Eagles 1 – 2,361

Rebecca Lamb of Virginia, Acorns JRC 1 – 2,360

Amity Ermarth of Virginia, Acorns JRC 1 – 2,353

Calista Smoyer of Pennsylvania, Ontelaunee Jr Rifle Team 3 – 2,349

Noelle Christensen of Texas, Texas Hill Country Shooting Club – 2,349

Niya Burney of Virginia, Acorns JRC 1 – 2,343

Grace Taschuk of Minnesota, American Legion Post 334 Junior Rifle Club – 2,343

Sporter

Hailey Smith of Illinois, Zion Benton NJROTC – 2,243

Levi Carlson of South Carolina, Nation Ford High School MCJROTC – 2,235

Jesseca Montcrieff of Florida, Oviedo #1 – 2,219

Mackayla Bourgeois of Mississippi, Gulfport MCJROTC – 2,214

Nathan Fahrenbrook of Nebraska, Western Nebraska Shooting Sports – 2,202

Lindsay Strohacker of Illinois, Freeport NJROTC – 2,193

Linsey Kleckner of Illinois, Freeport NJROTC – 2,192

Brooke Gilliard of Georgia, Coffee County 4H – 2,183