Off like a shot
Sport has exceeded officials’ expectations from outset in Arkansas
The Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program has continually exceeded its expectations since the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission launched it in 2006 and held its first state tournament the following year.
Program director Chuck Woodson said Game and Fish officials would have been happy if 200 students and 20 coaches showed up at its inaugural event. There were approximately 900 shooters and 125 coaches who arrived at the Remington Gun Club in Lonoke to compete that year, and the numbers have climbed each year.
There were almost 6,000 students and 825 coaches who attended this year’s state tournament, now held at the Game and Fish’s shooting sports complex in Jacksonville. Woodson said more than 50,000 students have participated in AYSSP, and there’s plenty of room for additional growth in the future.
“It’s been the dedication of these coaches,” Woodson said. “I never dreamed of it getting this big. There have been some great rivalries built, and those that are involved in the program work hard at it. Our tournaments run ahead of schedule about 90 percent of the time, and we’ve not had one incident during one of our events.
“It’s a learning sport. A person who has never picked up a shotgun before can be doing it in a matter of time if he listens to instructions. A 9-year-old and a 90-year-old compete on the same level, and it’s all about hand-eye coordination.”
The AYSSP has two divisions: junior (grades six through eighth) and senior (grades 9-12), and all participants must pass a hunter’s education course to participate. The season runs from Feb. 1 through July 31, and shooters use either 12- or 20-gauge shotguns to shoot at targets launched from machines at 39-42 mph from various angles and directions.
Participants must take part in five team practices and shoot 25 targets at each practice in order to compete on a team, whether it comes from a school or other clubs and organizations. Unlike many team sports, schools can field more than one team at a time and have them shoot at the same competitions.
“We actually had three of our junior teams and two of our senior teams that made it to the state competition,” said Lindell Roth, who along with Cliff Slinkard has overseen Shiloh Christian’s trap shooting program since its inception in 2010. “Of course you want to have your better shooters on your top team, so we break our scores down from practices and come up with our teams.”
Roth said he had 85 students show up for the first trap shooting meeting, but that number dropped to 45 before the season ended. Shiloh Christian had 67 shooters this year and has enjoyed some success in trap shooting. One of its teams — the Shiloh Christian Gunslingers — won the West Regional with a score of 231 of 250 targets hit, two targets better than Huntsville’s “Ugly Unicorns.” Johnathon Kearney of Shiloh Christian was one of two shooters to record a perfect 50 of 50 shooting that day and took second in the Champion of Champions Rounds.
“It comes with a lot of practice,” said Roth, whose team practices on donated land near Hogeye and on a range specifically built for trap shooting. “You just don’t go out there and shoot the birds the first time. It takes a lot of concentration and technique. We’ll shoot 35,000-40,000 rounds in practice, and that’s just our club.
“We have a schedule for our team, and they show up. They shoot their rounds, and our main goal is safety. We repeatedly go over the safety aspects of shooting. The kids have learned so much being around shotguns and weapons. We’ve had parents say their kids didn’t want to get out of the house, and now they want to shoot and go squirrel hunting and stuff.”
Bentonville High started its trap shooting club this year after a desire to do so for a number of years, and Bentonville West started one with the opening of its campus. Kevin York, an assistant football coach, oversaw Bentonville’s new club and mainly advertised it through the school’s outdoor education program in order to draw interest.
Bentonville had about 12 to 15 shooters who stuck it out through the regional tournament. Once they were down there, York quickly learned how big the sport has become.
“We shot our best and had scored some personal records,” York said. “I’m not the greatest shotgun coach; I’m not even a level 1 coach. I was shocked that there was this community of people in this state that love this sport and love the organization.
“There’s camper trailers hooked up there where people come in for this weekend event and camp out. It’s like going to Little League baseball. I didn’t realize there’s this following that goes to these shooting clubs and shooting events. There’s this circle of people that come around and see people they know, just like they do at Little League baseball.”
The Shiloh Christian Gunslingers captured the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program’s West Regional championship during its May tournament in Jacksonville and qualified for the AYSSP state tournament in May. The Gunslingers hit 231 of 250 targets during the competition, edging Huntsville’s Ugly Unicorns by two targets. One Shiloh Christian shooter, Johnathon Kearney, hit a perfect 50 of 50 and earned a spot in the Champion of Champions event in June.