PORT CLINTON — On this recent steamy summer day, most kids in their teens were crowding into Cedar Point, hanging out in the comfort of air conditioning at the mall, or splashing away at the waterpark or the beach.
But this small group could be found lined up inside a nondescript metal building, in a secluded corner of the Camp Perry military installation. They talked little, instead locking their attention in on a tiny black dot 33 feet away from where they stood.
This is a precision air rifle team, and one of the best in the country. They were here preparing for the sport’s national championship, which will be held later this week in Anniston, Ala.
And that miniscule black dot they seek to punch out with each delicately placed shot is considerably smaller than a bull’s-eye. Standing in the center of a small target field, it looks more like a fleck of pepper, or a well-placed decimal point.
This squad of young shooters is known collectively as the Ottawa County 4-H Club team, but made up of kids from Oak Harbor, Sylvania, Bellevue, and Graytown.
“Sure there’s a lot of other things we could be doing, but right now we feel like we need to be in here, practicing and fine-tuning our techniques,” said 16-year-old Ian Foos, who will be a sophomore at Bellevue High School this fall.
“We’re looking for that slight adjustment, that little edge that will make a difference when we go to Alabama. And I believe we’re ready, because we’ve put in the time and made the right preparations.”
Foos, who set a national scoring record at a preliminary competition earlier this year, is considered a strong contender to make the U.S. Olympic shooting team, which will compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Sarah Sutton, a 15-year-old shooter from Oak Harbor, said the extra preparation helps relieve the pre-competition jitters, as well as smooth out any areas that need attention.
“You want to have your mind clear and be relaxed so you can perform your best. No matter how much you talk about it, I think going through the routine and spending time on the shooting range is what makes the difference. As a team, I think we’re committed to make the sacrifices, even in the summer.”
Steve Roehrs, whose son, team member Sean, will be a sophomore at Northview this fall, said these kids have a distinct sense of purpose once they step in the range.
“They are serious about shooting and really focused on their work when they are in here, but once they get outside, they’re just kids, and that’s the way it should be,” the elder Roehrs said.
At the recent tuneup session at Camp Perry, a number of college shooters were on hand to offer advice, and make suggestions. Sarah, whose father, Fred Sutton, directs the Ottawa County team, said that the advice offered by those younger voices has a way of sinking in.
“Since my dad is my coach, I guess it’s normal to ignore some of what he says, just because he’s my dad. But when we hear tips or direction from these college shooters, we seem to listen better and it stays with us.”
Eighth-grader Justin Kleinhans of Oak Harbor, the youngest member of the team, said the skill level of the overall group gives him confidence heading into the nationals.
“Your mental approach is so important, because if you get nervous it will definitely hurt your score,” he said. “You have to know you have a good team around you and be confident going on to any competition, and then you still have to go out and shoot.”
Fred Sutton said his team benefits from having the state-of-the-art facility at Camp Perry — one of just two of that level in the country — as its home practice range.
“Everyone around the country is envious of this place, so yes, it’s a privilege for our kids to be able to work out here,” the elder Sutton said. “With this facility, and the staff here, these kids should be good.”
The teen shooters handle finely crafted rifles made in Germany, and shoot 177-caliber lead pellets. The competition air rifles cost from $2,000 to $3,500 each, and the custom suits and boots the shooters wear in practice and events cost another $500 to $1,700, so the investment made by their parents to get them into the sport is substantial.
The team has competed in a number of events around the Midwest this year, in a shooting season that stretches from October through July.
“We’ve had a lot of matches and regular practices, so we’ve had a chance to work on a lot of things,” Sean Roehrs said. “And for me, the more practice I get, the less nervous I am about the nationals. It also helps to know I have a great team around me — I’d be a lot more nervous if I didn’t know how good my teammates are.”
About 35 elite teams from across the country are expected to compete at this week’s prestigious event in Alabama, which is called the National Three-Position Air Gun Championships. It consists of three days of competition, with the scores combined at the end to determine an overall national champ. The field includes the best squads from throughout the United States, and a few top individual shooters, and is expected to have close to 240 competitors.
The local team, which includes 15-year-old Tyler Thompson from Graytown, finished third in a national-level event held earlier this year, but the top four teams in that competition were separated by less than 10 points. Coach Sutton takes his team into the Alabama event confident it has already closed that gap.
“Our kids will hold their own,” he said. “I think we have picked up the five points that we were behind, and we have expectations that we can walk out of there in first place.”
Steve Roehrs said that besides being disciplined enough to be able to consistently place a small pellet inside a tiny black dot more than 30 feet away, the kids on this team are also on target in the life skills department.
“This sport teaches respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and humility,” Steve Roehrs said. “It gives them skills that will last a lifetime, and the bad days teach the kids how to deal with disappointment, and it pushes them to try even harder.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.