MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The 2019 NCAA Rifle Championships were a first for Morgantown, but while all eyes were glued on the Mountaineer shooters and the excitement of hosting the event for the first time at the WVU Coliseum, another first was probably overlooked by many.
It was the first time a former member of the Morgantown based Mason-Dixon Junior Rifle Club shot in an NCAA event. Aaron Flowers, a student at West Point, was a member of the Army Rifle team. While he may have been the first, it’s unlikely he’ll be the last Mason-Dixon alum to shoot on the big stage. This fall, the club will have four shooters involved in NCAA rifle programs. Flowers will be back at Army, Drina Kerns will shoot for a second year at Akron, and two shooters from this year’s junior club will be freshmen shooters in college. Clair O’Neel will shoot for Ole Miss under the direction of Flowers’ mom and former WVU Coach Marsha Beasley. Cailey Dahlquist will continue her shooting career as a freshman at Moorehead State.
The trio were among seven members of the Mason-Dixon Club to qualify to shoot at the National Junior Olympics in Colorado Springs, Co. Six of the shooters made the trip to the match.
“It’s a record for us, I’m really proud of these kids,” said Coach Heather Sawyer.
Three members were repeat attendees. Clair O’Neel was there for a 5th time while team members Sarah Lough and Jacob Wisman each qualified for a 3rd time. Three members were first-time attendees, Cailey Dahlquist, Erin Ballard, and Connor Lemley. Lough, a 9th grader, earned two J2 bronze medals in air rifle and smallbore competition and placed 20th overall in both events. Seventh grader Wisman placed 4th in air rifle in the J3 age group.
The origins of the Mason-Dixon Jr Rifle Club date back more than 20 years when the club started as Boy Scout Explorer Post. Eventually it evolved into a junior rifle club sponsored by the Mason-Dixon Rifle Club in Morgantown. Sawyer, and her husband Richard Sawyer, both former members of the WVU Rifle team, took over the club’s coaching duties about five years ago and have worked to make the team into a precision competition shooting squad.
“We wanted to focus on a more advanced and competitive team,” she explained. “We wanted to create a team that could go compete at local and national events.”
The work has paid off. The shooters practice one to four days a week on the range at WVU.
“They have the electronic targets which have been amazing for us. We also use training simulators to work on movements without live fire. That’s helpful for them to use at home when we’re not able to use the range,” Sawyer said.
The practice time involves much more than just shooting. Sawyer and her husband hold classes ahead of range time at each practice to help shooters focus on key shooting fundamentals like breath control and mental preparedness. They often discuss nutrition and keeping in good physical shape to handle the rigors of precision shooting. The team is often treated to speakers from the WVU program and other noted names in shooting to offer encouragement and inspiration.
“It takes a lot of discipline to get to the collegiate level, you have to devote your life to it,” Heather said. “It’s not just range time, there’s a lot of physical training, mental training, working on your ballast. Basically everything you do can be incorporated into a match. It really takes a lot.”
The club is always looking for new members who would like to give shooting a try. The cost is minimal, only the annual club dues to get started. Rifles and ammunition are provided and Sawyer explained if a youngster becomes more interested and more serious about competition, they’ll typically start to buy their own gear and integrate it as they grow.