By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- To retired United States Army Lt. Col. Lester Layman, the thought of no rifle team at Massanutten Military Academy was downright strange.
Yet for three years, MMA went without. That changed this school year, as the Colonels once more began fielding a team and giving cadets the opportunity to develop and grow their shooting skills.
"For the kids that do it, it teaches them to control themselves," Layman said. "It's a sport where you have to stay calm. You can't get frustrated. If you make a mistake, you sort of have to get over it. So it teaches them how to deal with adversity and calm themselves down.
"And the other thing is -- we're a military school. It's kind of a historical thing military schools do, is have rifle teams. You kind of wonder why a military school doesn't have a rifle team. That's part of it. And another part of it is that I just enjoy it."
The Colonels' eight-cadet team is heading to Richmond on Thursday to compete in the Virginia Military Schools Rifle League state championship at Colonial Shooting Academy. MMA is one of just three schools in this year's competition, joining Fork Union Military Academy and Hargrave Military Academy.
Those are the same schools MMA has competed against all year, plus Fishburne Military School before that program was suspended during the season.
"The biggest problem is there's not that many military schools left in Virginia," Layman said. "You had Fishburne, Randolph-Macon Academy had a program but has since stopped, from what I understand. There's talk of a new military school starting up down in Hampton Roads, but that's kind of it."
There are more problems for MMA, which partially explains the hiatus in the rifle program there. Finding someone willing and able to lead the program took some time, until Layman, the school's JROTC Senior Army Instructor, was able to free up enough time to guide the program.
Then there's facilities -- in order to host a rifle match, a school needs a minimum of eight shooting lanes. MMA has only four, which means the Colonels have been on the road all season to compete.
"Everybody else had 10-lane facilities where their whole team can practice at once, and we have to take turns," Layman said. "So we're sort of disadvantaged, but we seem to have done fairly well."
Starting with a team of eight cadets who had never competed in the sport, three of whom "had never even picked up a weapon before they started," Layman began teaching basic marksmanship with the goal of getting his squad competitive by the end of the season. The results show the success of that pursuit. In MMA's season opener against Hargrave, the Colonels lost by a sizeable (719-1056) margin. By the time the last match rolled around against Hargrave on Feb. 14, that deficit narrowed considerably (916-948).
"Twelve is probably the ideal number," Layman said of a team. "Each match you can compete with eight, so eight works, especially if you have eight good kids."
In rifle, scoring consists of firing 10 shots each at targets from three positions -- standing, prone and kneeling. The top four scorers from each team of eight shooters count toward the overall team score.
MMA's Jacob Bergert, from Clifton, said he began competing in the sport as a member of Robinson Secondary School's nationally-recognized co-ed rifle team. When he transferred to MMA, he naturally stayed with the sport.
"I only got the bare-bones experience at the high school," Bergert said. "I was considering joining halfway through a year. It was kind of a side thought there, anyways. In terms of the teaching, ... they're a larger school, with lot more funding.
" ... It's still been pretty similar. We've been learning a lot of the same things, but we tend to take more responsibility for ourselves, in terms of learning stuff."
That responsibility also extends to maintaining and accounting for all the equipment used during competition. Cadets are allowed to use their own rifles in competition, but Bergert said MMA provides good equipment and the entire team uses the school-issued rifles.
"We have to keep track of all the rifles, all the scopes," Bergert said, "make sure we don't lose anything, and also the stands, other equipment that we use for ammunition, things like that."
Courtney Aldrich, from Daytona Beach, Fla., is one of the newcomers to the sport.
"I've never -- my little brothers, for Christmas once got BB guns and that's the first time I ever did anything with a gun," Aldrich said. "But my dad's a SWAT sniper back home, so that's something that got me into it.
"... It's something new, and I'm not really into a lot of the winter sports. I just decided to go ahead and try something different."
Aldrich has proven a natural, often ranking among the Colonels' top four in competition this season. She now feels confident enough to consider accepting a long-standing invitation to go hunting with her dad.
"I can definitely use what I've learned. I can help and play with my little brothers and teach them what I've learned, and possibly go to ranges with my father even more."
Layman hopes to see continued improvement from his team in Richmond this week.
"We have the ability to be competitive," Layman said. "I don't know how we'll do, but we have improved considerably since we started."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>