When most people hear the phrase “guns in school,” they think of tragedies such as school shootings and gang violence. But for several local high schoolers, the phrase means competition, responsibility and camaraderie.
“Shooting is not like any other sport where the goal is to beat the other team,” said Sam Simonton, a freshman at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville. “Sure it’s competitive, but there is a camaraderie there and it challenges your mind.”
Simonton is a member of Lakeview’s newly formed clay target team. The program was formed after the Georgia Independent Schools Association began the Scholastic Clay Target Sports in spring 2013.
“We had everything in place for it to begin,” coach Steve Chester said. “We had the safe for the guns, a place for us to shoot, and parents who wanted to be involved.
“The team was almost handed to me by parents who wanted this program to begin.”
The program stresses safety above all things, which, according to Chester, is one of its greatest aspects. Before a student can even practice with the team, they are required to complete a hunter safety course through Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division. Then the school spends about five hours before the first practice going over the different shotguns and their safety elements.
“Safety is the most important thing,” said Fred Simonton, Sam’s father and avid hunter. “In this sport there are no second chances. If you are unsafe, you are no longer a participant.
“If you ever go to one of these shoots, all of the kids are acting mature and very safe.”
Sam Simonton was one of 175 shooters to attend GISA’s first clay target state championship, where she won the Ladies General Division.
Lakeview isn’t the only Gainesville school with a shooting team. Gainesville High School’s Navy junior ROTC program started its rifle precision air rifle team six years ago.
“Not everybody can play football, basketball or baseball,” coach Master Sgt. Jack Reese said. “This gives them the opportunity to learn gun safety, that’s first and foremost, and how the rifle functions and the correct way to use it.”
Participants are required to attend a gun safety class, make a 100 on a written test and shoot with junior rifles before they are allowed to graduate to the more advanced, and more expensive, rifles.
In addition, the rifle team is a big commitment. Practice is held year-round, with ROTC matches in the first half of the school year, state competitions in the second and training camps during the summer. The team meets four days a week to shoot and has morning physical training three days a week.
“We’re talking about around 10 hours a week of practice,” team captain Dylan Chistel said. “We really don’t stop. The whole year is the season.”
Members also choose to give up sugar and caffeinated drinks, because it can cause shakiness and unsteadiness.
Many parents of the cadets are active supporters of the program as well. Denise Hazelgreen attends most team practices and matches to watch her daughter, Alexx Smith, shoot.
“I’m not a person (who) really believes in guns,” Hazelgreen said. “I don’t even know how to load one.
“But when she took it up I thought ‘Yeah, that is great. She’ll be able to protect herself and defend herself.’ Anything she wants to do, I’ll stand behind her 100 percent.”
The team’s dedication seems to be paying off. Last year, the team made it to state quarterfinals, and they have high hopes for this year.
“I want to go to state and win it,” Chistel said. “I think we can. We’re very capable, all of us.
“We have a really good chance of winning, and if not, we can make second or third.”