Portage Area High School began a competitive rifle program just four years ago. In that short amount of time, it has grown in leaps and bounds. This past February, the Portage squad won the PIAA state championship, fronting a field of 19 teams at the state tournament held at the Jerome Rifle Club in Somerset County.
This year's Portage squad - which was also made up of seven boys and seven girls - also won the championship of the WestPAC conference with a perfect 9-0 conference record. Portage finished 13-1 overall.
At the state tournament, Portage junior Candice Ramus placed fourth individually with a score of 563, while senior Russell Smith was fifth with a score of 556. Sophomore Angelica Smith was 11th with a 553, and junior Alexandra Fedorko logged a 551 for 12th place.
Russell Smith is a member of the Portage Area High?School rifle team that recently won a PIAA?championship.
Russell Smith, who qualified to participate on the Pennsylvania state team in the upcoming National Junior Olympic Tournament next month in Colorado [see related insert], thought this year's Portage team had plenty of potential, and the coaching staff helped the team to actualize that potential.
"I knew the team was going to go far this year, but I didn't know that we would actually make it as far as we did,'' Smith said. "The shooters were dedicated, and the coaching staff worked very hard. Without the coaches, we wouldn't have gone as far as we did.''
The Portage team's head coach is Ned Moore. Other members of the coaching staff are Bob Lutz, Jack Irwin, Chuck Onder and Paul Lutz.
Smith a Junior Olympian
Portage Area High School senior Russell Smith will be a member of the Pennsylvania team in the national Junior Olympic men's small bore and air rifle competitions set for April 19-25 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Smith qualified for the team last December by shooting a score of 563 as a member of the Jerome (Pa.) Sportsmen's Club squad during a qualifying event at the Palmyra Sportsmen's Club near Hershey.
"I'm speechless,'' Smith said. "I didn't really expect to qualify, but after working real hard and shooting as well as I did, it was a goal of mine.''
Smith, a four-year member of the Portage rifle team, will continue participating in the sport on the collegiate level at Morehead State University in Kentucky.
- John Hartsock
Moore is a member of the Portage Revolver and Pistol Club, a sportsman's facility which served as the Portage High School team's practice base and site for the squad's home matches. The Portage Revolver and Pistol Club has also hosted events for Portage's Junior Rifle Club for shooters ages 12-18 since that club's inception back in 1959. Some of the Junior Rifle Club members also participate on the high school team, but many others don't.
Four years ago, Moore petitioned other members of the Portage Revolver and Pistol Club to allow the high school team to use the club's facilities for practice and meets. Moore and the Portage team are appreciative that the club agreed to open its doors for the team.
"The Portage Revolver and Pistol Club has been very active in teaching our kids how to shoot,'' Moore said. "Honestly, the sportsmen's clubs are the strength of any high school rifle program. Most schools don't have enough money to construct their own ranges for practices and meets.''
Rifle is an equal-opportunity sport. On Portage's team roster this year, there were seven girls and seven boys shooters.
"Everyone competes at the same level, whether boy or girl, Class AAA, Class AA or Class A classification,'' Moore said. "Since I started this program, we've always had quite a few girls in it. It's about half boys and half girls, and I've noticed that in the last 10 years or so, the sport has become more popular with girls.''
High school teams in this area, including Portage, use .22 caliber rifles with no optical sights in meet competitions. Moore said that the sport is much more demanding than it might appear to be on the surface.
"They shoot at regulation targets from 50 feet away, and it's a very difficult target that leaves very little room for error,'' Moore said. "The center of the bullseye is what shooters are aiming for, and it's only about the size of a small pinhole. It's very difficult to see with the naked eye. [Rifle] is a very difficult discipline. It's not an easy thing to do.''
All the members of either the high school team or junior rifle club are also required to take a 15-hour course sanctioned by the National Rifle Association [NRA] as well as pass a standardized test, before they are permitted to use a firearm.
"Safety is up front and paramount,'' Moore said.
And such thorough preparation breeds the type of success that the Portage team experienced this season.
"We knew we had a good shot if we performed,'' Moore said of the state championship. "The kids performed beautifully, and when all the scores were counted, they came out ahead. For a team that has been in existence only four years to come this far is very difficult.''