Photo by Chet Strange/The American Legion

Returning champions, new competitors advance to Legion’s air rifle finals

The top eight marksmen in the both the precision and sporter category will line up shoulder-to-shoulder on the firing line inside the USA Shooting Range at the Olympic Training Center Saturday to compete in the final round of The American Legion’s Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship. The 28th annual event in Colorado Springs, Colo., has returning champions and new competitors, all looking to win first place in their respective category and a $5,000 scholarship.

Returning to the firing line is precision shooter and 2016 American Legion air rifle precision champion Taylor Gibson of Salem, Ore. Gibson stands a mere one point behind first-time Legion competitor Jared Eddy of Midland, Ga., who holds the lead with an aggregate score of 2,374 heading into Saturday’s final round.

“It’s good to be back. I’m seeing old friends and making new ones,” said Gibson, who shoots for Colonel Allison Jr Rifle Club and is sponsored by Post 136. In an effort to claim a second American Legion precision championship title, Gibson said she is going to focus on shooting less nines and more 10’s, and sing songs “in my head like I normally do when shooting. I sing anything David Bowie. He’s my favorite singer; I’m a big fan.”

Another returning champion is Antonio “Andre” Gross of Webster, N.Y., who earned a first-place finish in the sporter category in 2014. He returned in 2016 and shot precision, which he will shoot in the final match in sixth place with an aggregate score of 2,369. The point difference between the top eight in precision is tight, and while Gross doesn’t feel he could make up the point difference to take the lead, he just hopes to “have fun and maybe move up a few spots. I’m just going to shoot to shoot.”

A total of 30 competitors, 15 in each category, have been shooting since Thursday, taking aim in the prone, standing and kneeling position at the USA Shooting Range. The competitors, who represent air rifle clubs from across the United States, qualified for the Legion’s national competition after advancing through the individual postal match competition that involved more than 1,500 other marksmen.

Air rifle coach and Legionnaire Dan Hackstein of Zion, Ill., has five athletes that competed in sporter for the air rifle tournament, and three are advancing to the final – including first-time Legion competitor Bailey Hoenig, who holds the lead by a solid nine points with an aggregate score of 2,221.

“I just went in confident, yet, I wanted to be humble. I’ll see what happens tomorrow,” said Hoenig, who shoots for Zion Benton High School NJROTC. “I like the control that rifle gives me and it’s really easy to make friends. I just want to make my coach and my mom proud.”

In his 15 years coaching the Zion Benton air rifle team, Hackstein has been sending athletes to The American Legion’s Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship for almost 10 of those years. His daughter, Hailey Smith, won the Legion’s sporter championship title in 2017.

“I am so grateful that The American Legion has this and we get to come out here and be a part of it.. I, my kids, can’t thank (The American Legion) enough for having this for America’s youth … for them to be a part of this, Legion shooting,” Hackstein said. “I know The American Legion is all about teaching youth marksmanship and safe gun handling. And then to have a competition like this down here in Colorado Springs at the Olympic training center is prestige.”

American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan, as well as Sons of The American Legion National Commander Danny Smith, attended Friday’s competition to watch one of the Legion’s premier Americanism programs.

“Our Americanism programs within The American Legion, we are so proud of them, we are so proud of the youth coming out to take part in our programs,” Rohan said. “(They) hold the future to this country. And it amazes me that the kids are from across the nation and while they have their sport in common, it’s like they know each other. This emphasizes the fact that we really are a family.”

Since arriving in Colorado Springs earlier in the week, the 30 Legion air rifle participants enjoyed a dinner at American Legion Post 38 and Friday had a pizza social to help ease any nerves going into the final match.

“I was really stressed out because this is a whole new range and a new state that I’ve never been before. But I heard so many people have had great experiences here with this match that I was excited to come,” said Toni Ludwig of Virginia, who shoots for American Legion Post 89 Junior Rifle Team and earned a second place spot in the sporter finals. “I’ve never shot in a finals match before. I’m nervous, but I’m ready.”

The final round of the competition will get underway Saturday at 9 a.m. Mountain Time. Follow the scoring online here. The competitors will fire 10 shots in the standing position.

The following are the top eight finalists in each category, along with their club and current aggregate score.

Precision

1. Jared Eddy of Georgia, Ole Mill Rangers – 2,374

2. Taylor Gibson of Oregon, Colonel Allison Jr Rifle Club – 2,373

3. Kaylene Castillo of New Mexico, El Eldorado High School MCJROTC – 2,373

4. Richard Clark of Michigan, Jackson County Sportsmans Club – 2,372

5. Emily Brock of South Dakota, Dakota Sharpshooters – 2,372

6. Antonio Gross of New York, Webster Junior Marksmen – 2,369

7. Kinga Aletto of Florida, Sarasota Military Academy – 2,367

8. Elizabeth Lorentz of Montana, Hellgate Gold – 2,358

Sporter

1. Bailey Hoenig of Illinois, Zion Benton High School NJROTC – 2,221

2. Toni Ludwig of Virginia, Legion Post 89 Junior Rifle Team – 2,212

3. Howie Edison of Montana, Mineral County 4H Shooting Sports – 2,195

4. Cole Rice of Illinois, Zion Benton High School NJROTC – 2,192

5. Jeremy Angel of Illinois, Zion Benton High School NJROTC – 2,191

6. Nicole Masteller of Iowa, Des Moines North MCJROTC

7. Gabriel Sanchez-Rios of California, Selma HS MCJROTC – 2,155

8. Cody Main of Nevada, Carson High School NJROTC – 2,151