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Ready, Aim, Fire

County-funded high school rifle teams have been around Arlington for more than 50 years, so what exactly do they do?

Drive by the Kemper-Macon Ware Masonic Temple in Falls Church on a weekday night and look through one of the basement windows. It’s almost certain there will be some teenager aiming a gun of some kind in the distance.

It’s another practice for one of the more underappreciated sets of athletes in Arlington: the Yorktown and Washington-Lee rifle teams.

For close to 50 years now, rifle teams have been funded and supported by Arlington County as a winter sport, and with shooting ranges proving more and more costly in this area, the Masonic temple on Little Falls Street has had to suffice as a practice space for both teams the past three years. The temple allows both to use the basement free of charge.

“I’m amazed they actually let us do that there,” said Yorktown junior Daniel Posada. “But they’re obviously very nice to let us have practice there.”

<b>ON THIS NIGHT</b>, five members of the Washington-Lee team are aiming their air rifles at targets about 25 feet away. Using pellets about a millimeter in diameter, the Generals have very little margin for error, with 10 points awarded for hitting a bull’s eye and a point deduction for every millimeter or so they are outside the perfect shot.

They shoot from three separate positions — standing, kneeling, and prone (or laying down) —but it’s the different routes they took to joining the rifle team that is most interesting. A few had gone on hunting trips in the past and felt the urge to take target practice more than just a few times a year. Others just heard about it through word of mouth and wanted to see what being on the rifle team meant.

Some, like Washington-Lee senior Andrew Trombley, whet their appetite at summer camps and wanted to feed their hunger even more.

“What teenage boy doesn’t want to go shoot stuff,” joked Trombley. “I started with the team and it was a lot different than I expected, but I still liked it. It makes me feel like I’m achieving something.”

<b>LAST YEAR</b>, the winner of the Potomac High School Rifle League, home to all six teams from the Northern region and a school each from Washington, D.C. and Maryland, was W.T. Woodson — a team whose starting five shooters were all female.

Yorktown has one girl on its team this season, while W-L has none. But according to coach Wanlace Yates who, along with wife Traci, has run the programs at both schools since 1994, the low numbers of girls this season is an anomaly.

“It’s a very egalitarian sport in terms of young and old, men and women,” said Yates.

When Traci Yates was attending Yorktown during the 1980s, she was a member of the rifle team. She began shooting at age 13, but “basically started at Yorktown”, and has now made it a part of her adult life. Her and her husband alternate between the schools, balancing out each other’s schedules so that one is with the couple’s two children while the other coaches.

Over their close to 15 years coaching, the landscape of rifle teams has changed. The emphasis now is more and more on air rifles, which use pellets rather than actual bullets. The materials involved are more inexpensive than the small bore rifles that were more prevalent in the past.

While Arlington County does provide funding for things like facilities fees, targets, and pellets, many of the rifles used by both Yorktown and W-L are actually owned by the Yates. The teams also do their own fund-raising throughout the year for the purchase of new equipment. The rifles used range in price from $1,000 to $3,000, but the “year-to-year cost is really very modest,” according to Wanlace Yates.

<b>THERE’S NO CROWD</b> at a typical rifle match and last Saturday’s contest between Yorktown and Robinson at Blue Ridge Arsenal in Chantilly was no different, with just a few parents in attendance. This particular match is one of five for Yorktown that involves small bore rifles, instead of the air rifles that the W-L team was practicing with.

Each varsity team has five members that contribute to the team score. Shooters aim at three sets of targets — one for the standing position, another for kneeling, and a third for prone. Each target has 12 bull’s eyes, 10 that are scored and two in the middle that are used for sighting, practice shots for those not familiar to the sport.

Every participant has 55 minutes to complete 30 shots — 10 from each position. That may seem like an awful lot of time, but precision shooting like this involves much more than just possessing a steady hand.

Some shooters will use 20 and 30 pellets or bullets on each sighting target in order to make proper adjustments to their rifle. The whole situation is pressure packed because they only get one opportunity to aim and shoot at each scored bull’s eye.

“It is very much a learned skill,” said Wanlace Yates. “It’s very, very rare where people just have natural talent.”

<b>THIS WEEKEND’S MATCH</b> wasn’t one of Yorktown’s finest moments. Many of the Patriots scored lower than they’re used to thanks to the frigid temperatures inside the unheated ranges of Blue Ridge arsenal and the team ended up losing to Robinson, 1091-935.

“With my fingers numb, it’s hard for me to feel the trigger,” Yorktown senior Chris Smeelk said.

Most agree that the team score isn’t what really matters, though. Everyone wants to keep improving individually, knowing full well that if each varsity member gets better, the team score will follow suit.

Even though matches serve as a showcase for a shooter’s talent, W-L’s captain, Trombley, said he gets a lot of questions from peers about what being on the rifle team entails. “Some people think we might shoot animals,” he said.

“(People) don’t really see it as a true sport, but in essence I think it’s a sport,” said Yorktown’s Posada. “You’re on a team, you practice — some people practice every day — and it’s just hard. It’s harder than it looks and people don’t realize that until they try it out.”