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Dashawn Cooper, a Guntown eighth-grader, was one of nearly 500 students statewide who took part in the Mississippi Scholastic Shooting Program this season in its second year of existence.

Junior high and high school students in Northeast Mississippi have found new opportunities to build camaraderie, learn teamwork and grow self confidence this year through the Mississippi Scholastic Shooting Program.

The program helps school teams compete in skeet, trap and sporting clay events statewide. In its second year of existence, nearly 500 students have joined a trend that, like its scholastic archery cousin, appears poised for exponential growth.

Founded last year by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and introduced first in the Jackson area, this fall’s term was the first to see Northeast Mississippi schools compete. All did well, and the Mooreville team, as well as a number of others from Tishomingo and Prentiss Counties, have advanced to state competitions and beyond.

Created with the intention of offering students more opportunities to build a lifelong affinity for the outdoors, the program encourages students of all backgrounds to give shotgun shooting a try. Experienced shooters and brand new shotgunners practice side by side, and the experience that has resulted has been rewarding to all.

“It’s a great way for boys and girls to get involved, to be a part of something, to learn gun safety and to have an opportunity to compete,” Heather Pike, Mooreville’s shooting coach, said. Each school team is required to have coaches who are certified by the Mississippi Scholastic Shooting Program. Some are school faculty members and some are simply parents or interested members of the community, but all serve their teams as volunteers. Pike is a project manager for information technology services at the North Mississippi Medical Center.

First year experience

“This is our first year participating in it and we hope to grow all of our teams, spreading the knowledge that these teams are available,” Pike said. “Even if your school doesn’t participate, we have teams you can join, and you don’t have to be a practiced shooter. We have lots of people who’ve never shot before. It’s open to everyone, and they all have a good time and are learning quickly. It’s really exciting.”

“The students learn gun safety and hunter education and, in the process of that, they’re learning about teamwork and building strong camaraderies as well,” Connie Gusmus, one of Guntown’s shooting coaches and a faculty member, said. “There’s a lot of practical math and science involved in clay target shooting, calculating target speed, lead distances and the like, but the main benefit I see them picking up is the relationships they’re building. I’ve seen kids who’d otherwise likely never have talked together, because they’re in different social groups at school, but they’re helping each other, forming cross-clique alliances, building teams and shooting well together.”

A brand-new game

“I had never shot a shotgun before but, on my second practice, I began doing well,” Emmanuel Flores, a Guntown 7th grader, said. “When we went on to competition, it was kind of overwhelming a bit, but it taught me a lot and I’m looking forward to doing it again. I was scared at first but I got over that. I had a lot of fun and got to spend some time with my dad that I otherwise would not have. It was a good time because my dad was there.”

“Everyone gets nerves in competition, and I teach them it’s no different than practice,” Mike Johnson, Saltillo’s shooting coach, said. Johnson works in IT for Three Rivers Planning and Development and has been a volunteer shooting coach for years, first with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, then with 4H and now with the Saltillo scholastic team. “Most of the kids didn’t know skeet shooting was a particular sport. They called the clay target itself a skeet and had never seen anything at all like sporting clays. For the first year out, we did well. I told them this year was all about learning. Learning the game, learning what completion is all about, learning what to expect for the future.”

The future for scholastic shooting in Northeast Mississippi looks very bright, largely thanks to the opportunities promoted and provided by Square1 Outdoors, a non-profit shooting facility located on Mt. Vernon Road in north Tupelo that offers their range and volunteer services for area teams to use during practice. They also provide loaner guns to any students who need them, and offer training for competitors and coaches alike. Square1 Outdoors is a membership-based group created for the purpose of sharing and teaching the shooting sports. Teams from Lee, Alcorn and Prentiss Counties practice there regularly, an opportunity the lack of which would likely prevent most from existing.

“From the beginning, to imagine the number of youth shooters who have taken the opportunity to participate and make this program a success would have been bold and assuming, yet here we are seeing the results,” said David Ramseyer, with Square1 Outdoors.

To learn how to join or to help with the program, email square1outdoors@gmail.com.

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