North Pocono's co-ed rifle team struggling for wins
As winter time scholastic athletics go, competitive rifle shooting is one of the rarest sports sanctioned by the PIAA.
It also has one of the shortest seasons.
While basketball is beginning league action, North Pocono’s rifle team is just about halfway through its schedule in the Northeast Pennsylvania Rifle League, which is comprised of two teams from District II and eight from District XI.
Although the Trojans are 0-4 so far in 2018-19, it’s no reflection on the caliber of shooters on this year’s squad.
“No wins yet,” said Head Coach Anthony Carito.
“We lost two matches by just one point and we have some of the best shots we’ve had in years on the team now. We have kids making season high scores and we still lost. That’s just the kind of competition we’re up against this year.
“The other teams in the league are very strong too and just as competitive.”
The top score a team can post is 500. The Trojans lost to Southern Lehigh in the opening week, 499-486. They were bested by East Stroudsburg South 495-494 and then took a 494-491 hit from Bethlehem Liberty.
North Pocono closed out December with a 495-494 loss to Bethlehem Freedom.
“The record doesn’t really reflect our team well,” said senior Kolby Tonkin. “We lost some close matches and we have a number of freshmen on the team as well who have been shooting well but are still learning.”
Competitive shooting attracts a diverse group of students. This year, 21 made the cut out of the 41 that showed up for try-outs.
Trojan team members range from kids that grew up hunting and shooting with their families to others that never touched a firearm until the day they tried out.
Seniors such as Tonkin and Dustin Shaffer are representative of the former, while freshman Gavin Durkin falls into the latter category.
“I wanted to be on the team since I was little,” said Shaffer. “My mom, Laura, was a captain on the team when she was in high school. My uncles were all on the team, and now my little brother Charlie is on the team, too.”
“This year was the first time I’d ever shot a gun in my life,” Durkin said. “I learned about it when I was in sixth grade from Coach Carito, who was my gym teacher.
“Then, over the summer, I had a job working with Chris Kakareka, one of the seniors. I know it was something I wanted to do, so I begged my mom to let me try out.”
Good thing his mom gave in! As it turns out, Durkin and fellow frosh, Maria Parola, are two of the top shots on the squad according to Carito.
“It was awesome to see a bunch of freshmen make the team,” the coach said.
“Gavin and Maria have been shooting very well and I hope they’ll only improve as they get older.”
In today’s day and age, the thought of firearms in school sends chills up and down may peoples’ spines.
Pound for pound, though, shooting a small-bore rifle at a paper target on a controlled firing range is safer than any other high school sport.
Ammunition is counted and accounted for; no one may load a cartridge, close their action, or commence firing without directive; and coaches and spotters are always on hand to make sure the rules, which are strict, stay enforced.
“It’s not like we’re blasting this and tearing that,” Durkin said. “We’re shooting with respect.”
“It goes beyond handling the rifle with respect,” added Shaffer. “We treat each other on the team with respect. It’s more of a family feeling than any other sport I’ve played.
“We carry that respectfulness when we are out in public and wear our team shirts. In general, people in society are waiting for something wrong to happen so they can say something bad.“We’re always on our best behavior because we never want something to come back on the team.”
While shooting is a new thing to Durkin, both Tonkin and Shaffer recounted that they had to learn a whole new way to shoot when it came to the rifle team.
Developing a routine and being deliberate in their actions was something that took a while. In the past marksmen had 15 minutes to sight in and complete their 10 targets.
This year, a rule change limits their time on the line to just 10 minutes.
“We focus on building a routine and developing good shooting habits,” Tonkin said. “All your steps are the same every time.
“Load. Close the action. Take a point of aim. Breathe. Look off target. Look back. Take two deep breaths. Exhale once. Squeeze the trigger on the second exhale. Let out the last breath of air. Follow through. Shoot 10 targets and count the top five. It’s mind clearing.”
Shaffer echoed Tonkin’s story, adding: “It really becomes a science of knowing yourself and your body.”
Durkin gets a feeling of satisfaction. “I feel accomplishment every time,” he said. “It builds my self-esteem and I know I’m becoming a better shot.”
It takes a lot to keep the team going.
Both the members and the coaches are quick to recognize the school district, administration, and boosters for their continued support.
Additionally, outside organizations such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, Midway USA, and USA Shooting.
The NP rifle team still has to face Berwick, last place Salisbury, and Stroudsburg. Most of the top teams they’ve faced already, so there’s good feelings among the team that things will start to turn around for the Trojans.
“We’re just looking for that first win,” said Coach Carito. “We have nine great seniors and a lot of other talent on the team. Our seniors are leading by example and there’s nothing but positivity on the team.
“We want to stick together, stay positive, and end the season strongly.”