By Scott Franco

PORTAGE – If you talk to some of the coaches who work for the Portage Area School District about Alli Kissell, they will tell you she’s a pretty good vollleyball player, or a pretty good softball player. When it comes to the rifle teams at Portage and the nearby Jerome Sportsmen Club, she is more than that.

“You can tell a standout shooter right away and she stood out from day one,” Portage coach Ned Moore said, remembering years ago to when he first spotted the sophomore Kissell at the Portage Revolver and Rifle Club.

“The most important thing she has is focus and concentration … you just don’t normally see that in a kid Alli’s age,” Jerome Sportsmen Club coach John Binnie said. “That usually comes along later in life. She is that impressive.”

Kissell is not only the top shooter for the 12-1 Mustangs – she owns the school record of a 295 shoot – but she recently won the Pennsylvania State Rifle championship for the Jerome team and will represent the state in the National Junior Olympics in Colorado this Spring.

Because of her state title, Kissell is ranked 39th in the nation for her age by USA Shooting. Practicing six days a week with the high school and travel teams, with Saturdays off sometimes, can usually help with something like that.

“I started shooting when I was younger with my dad and my pap in the backyard,” Kissell recalls. “I got into sixth grade and my teacher, Mrs. Lutz, referred me to the Portage Junior Rifle program. I went through that a couple of years, then I got to ninth grade and got on the high school team.”

Because he coaches Conemaugh Township, Binnie saw Kissell during the scholastic season, which runs during the winter. He started thinking about adding her to what is basically a high school travel rifle team at the Jerome Sportsmens Club.

“He started watching my scores,” remembered Kissell. “He was calling to check on my scores to see how I was doing. One day after a meet, he asked me if I wanted to come down and shoot with the Jerome team. I was like ‘OK, I guess I could go down there’ and I did and I really enjoyed it.”

Going from a high school team, where she knew everyone, to a travel team comprised of other kids in Somerset and Cambria counties, was something the three-year scholastic academic award winner had to adjust to.

“It was a little different because a lot of the kids were older than me, and had more experience than me and at one point I was like ‘Holy crap … I don’t know anyone here!’ It was definitely nervewracking,” she said.

After befriending shooters like Nick Borelle and Deanna Binnie, competing on the Jerome team became an enjoyable experience for her.

“I’ve grown up with three sports. Volleyball is a part of me,” said Kissell, whose mother, Rebecca, was once the high school coach at Portage. “I played competitively. I was on a traveling softball team. But with my success in rifle … I like rifle. I like team rifle. I really enjoy going to the travel matches because you compete against yourself, by yourself. You do not have to depend on others. If you do not do well, you have no one to blame but yourself.”

Kissell, who besides a state title has also won a gold medal at an NRA Open event and a bronze at the Three Rivers Outdoor championships, is contemplating cutting back on softball because of the time it will take to get ready for Colorado in April.

“With as much time as it takes up, I don’t know if I will do it this year,” she said. “I don’t want to take that extra risk of getting hurt.”

Rifle scholarships are available at the collegiate level. However, it’s not as big in Pennsylvania as it is in other states. According to Binnie and Moore, there are no NCAA Division I college programs in the state. Still, a West Virginia University coach did get to see Kissell shoot while she was with the Jerome team one day. They have seen her at other travel team meets and there will be more coaches at the Junior Olympic event April 15-20.

“West Virginia is one of the top teams in the country [in rifle]” Moore says. “That is the one you want to go to.”

Kissell says there is a lot of scholarship money out there. If she wants to stay close to home, places like WVU, Ohio State, Akron, Navy and Army have rifle teams. You can also find a rifle team in the SEC at Ole Miss.

“College coaches start looking at you as soon as you go to these big matches. Once you go to three national matches, you get ranked. Then they start watching you,” she said.

Having already been to Georgia, Ohio, West Virginia and all over the Keystone State for competitions, getting ready for Colorado doesn’t seem like too daunting a task for her.

“I want to get a scholarship and succeed, and you have to make sacrifices,” Kissell said.

Binnie thinks she has a strong shot at that.

“If Alli were to stick with this, she is going to get heavily recruited by teams in the NCAA,” he said.