Sean Kruger had big shoes to fill. We’re talking about stepping into Bear Bryant-sized kicks.
In the last 12 years, no team has dominated the Daisy National BB Gun Championship Match like the Pierre Junior Shooters out of Pierre, South Dakota. In 2016, they did it again, making the annual 12-hour pilgrimage to Rogers, Arkansas — home of Daisy Outdoor Products and the National match each July — to win the team’s seventh national title.
Kruger, in his first year coaching the Pierre Junior Shooters, knew the expectations would be through the roof for a shooting program built more than four decades ago that has won more titles in recent years than it has lost. All while competing against nearly 60 of the top 5-meter BB gun teams in the country.
“It’s a lot of work,” Kruger said. “The kids put in a tremendous amount of time. Our program has had some success so they know they can reach this. It’s been a long, stressful week. I think the kids handle it better than the coaches do.”
Handle it, they did. The five-member team of rising marksmen and women consisted of Nathan Schnabel, Andrew Kliewer, Alexandra Smith, Wyatt Rose and Jessica Hays. From the four shooting positions — standing, kneeling, sitting and prone — the squad posted only two sub-90 rounds and bested Wyandotte County 4-H from Leavenworth, Kansas, by six points. Spink County Shooting Sports, another South Dakota team out of Redfield, finished one point out of second place to medal with a bronze.
Since 1991, when squads began to split into local shooting teams, no county or area team has won more Daisy National BB Gun titles than Pierre. Prior to that time, each state sent one team to Nationals and both Kansas and Missouri captured nine shooting championships from 1966-91.
Grace Hockenberry of Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, only had about a week left of eligibility to shoot in the Daisy National BB Gun Match, which allows participates ages 8 to 15. The rising junior in high school fired 13 points under a perfect 400 to capture the overall individual title days before her 16th birthday.
It was sweet, indeed, for Hockenberry, who has been shooting for seven years and has competed at Nationals for four years before finding near perfection with Daisy’s Match Grade Model 499 Champion, the gun all competitors use — a single-shot BB gun categorized as the most accurate BB gun in the world.
“I just got in my zone, and I shot like I was at home. I didn’t think about anything else,” said Hockenberry, who fired 99s in both the prone and sitting shooting positions.
She said she will likely move on to competitive shooting in .22-caliber rifle or pistol to change things up after close to a decade of feverish air rifle practice. All are sports that nearly any youth, regardless of size, strength or gender, can participate in and achieve success.
“This is easy to get into,” Hockenberry said of the shooting sports. “There’s [a shooting sports program] in just about every state. It’s fun if you work hard.”
Garett Dall of Leavenworth, Kansas, placed second in the aggregate individual competition, just four points off Hockenberry’s mark. Mullen, Nebraska’s Gracie Hoyt, the only disabled shooter at the competition, won bronze and inspired everyone in the building at the same time. Hoyt was born with shortened arms and malformed hands, but has competed at Nationals for several years. She shoots with a spring-style stand and uses a custom-built air rifle with a modified trigger farther back on the stock.
In the Champions Match, held exclusively for competitors ineligible to shoot as regular team members or as an alternate due to Nationals’ consecutive match rule, Alisha McMartin of Hartford, South Dakota, shot a 387 to take home top honors. Shooters who were on a team the previous year are not allowed to return as an alternate or team member the following year, allowing new shooters a chance to compete each year.
A MARKSMAN’S MUSTACHE
Some coaches at Daisy’s BB Gun Nationals have seen it all and given nearly a lifetime to teaching young shooters the discipline and safety needed to become elite. Howard Baker is one of those people, and if you’ve been around the national air rifle scene for very long, his presence and unmistakable Rollie Fingers-like, handle-bar mustache has become part of the program.
Baker was recognized for 30 years of service at the 51st annual Daisy Nationals, first registering as a coach in 1986, but he had eight years of coaching experience even before that. He’s one of the coaches for the Oregon Timber Beasts from Forest Grove, Oregon, and he’s seen the air rifle program evolve into today’s mammoth competition with over 400 shooters annually.
Baker coaches with a quiet confidence, slowly dropping a BB into his shooter’s muzzle-loaded BB gun while analyzing each pre-shot movement. He sees the nerves on the firing line at times and knows one shot can derail an entire round.
He puts his shooters at ease and delivers simple, yet effective, advice, equating the shot setup to the anxiety most deer hunters get in the woods.
“It’s like buck fever if you’re a hunter,” Baker said. “When you feel nervous, go back to the basics: sight alignment, sight picture, breath control, trigger squeeze, follow through; and it goes away. Same thing with buck fever. You pick a spot you want to hit and focus on that, and you forget about the antlers.”
When Baker first started coaching a shooting team back in the 1980s, the stigma that today’s culture has plastered to guns wasn’t around. He recalls a young shooter about a decade ago nearly got in trouble with the law when he stepped out of his parents’ vehicle for practice holding his air rifle. The Oregon team practices on the second and third floor above a bank.
“He’s standing by a door near the bank entrance with a gun,” Baker said. “Some little old lady sees this … but fortunately we had some parents in the area who explained it was a boy with a BB gun going to practice.”
Baker believes in the effectiveness of the shooting sports and its benefits on today’s youth. But he also knows more needs to be done in an ever-worsening gun-control climate instituted by those who have no understanding of how and why gun safety should be taught.
“What we’re doing with this program is enough here (with the teams competing at Nationals), but it’s not enough for youth in general in schools,” he said. “We don’t give them a set of car keys and say, ‘Go drive a car.’ We train them. We’re training them (about the dangers of) alcohol and drugs. If (guns are) unsafe, why aren’t we training them (about gun safety)?”
Charlie Pardue is another one of those long-in-the-tooth instructors. He’s been involved with air rifle and BB shooting programs since about 1976. He has produced hundreds, if not thousands, of safe, ethical shooters through the years, including several coaches who have gone on to do the same. That included one face he hadn’t seen in years until last July at Nationals when he glanced a few shooting stations down from his Cookeville, Tennessee, squad and saw a newcomer to the big stage — and one of Pardue’s former pupils.
Jim Burnett and his team from Walker County, Georgia, were first timers at Nationals in 2016. And he just happened to end up on the same line as Pardue, his shooting instructor at Tennessee Tech in the late 1970s and early 80s.
“Charlie Pardue started my competitive shooting there,” Burnett said. “I had never fired a shot before then, and now I’ve been involved with 4-H teams for 15 years.”
Responsible gun handlers beget responsible gun handlers. It’s a wonderful system.
Burnett’s Walker County squad found a way to get to Arkansas through a tough Georgia program that hosts the largest 4-H BB gun match in the nation — some 700-plus shooters, Burnett said. Walker County finished third at the Georgia Games, earning a bid to the Independence Day shoot in Arkansas for the first time. Teams, made up of five shooters and two alternates, must finish in the top three at a state event to qualify to compete at Nationals.
The 12-hour ride for the Grey Berets from northwest Georgia seemed to be worth the experience once arriving at the John Q. Hammons Convention Center in Rogers, albeit a road trip delayed several times for pit stops.
“We had a bunch of bathroom breaks,” Walker County Garrett Morton said of the drive over. “I’m just glad (the competition) is inside with the air conditioning.”
Added team member Jonah Johnson, “It’s been fun. A little stressful, but different from anything else you can do.”
Pardue’s Awesome Opossums team had a unique way of dealing with the stress and nervousness.
“If you walk down the hall, you’ll see them sleeping or taking a nap,” Pardue said. “I don’t think they know they need to get nervous. One kid last year hit a 100. He didn’t even know it was happening until it was over. It doesn’t seem to bother the kids. It bothers the parents and coaches more than it bothers them.”
For Burnett’s team, it was an experience to travel across the country, compete in a tense atmosphere and meet other shooters from difference states.
“This is huge,” he said. “The way that Daisy supports this thing; it’s huge.”
ICING ON THE CAKE
For Daisy’s part, they put on one heck of a show. Company officials organized several events for teams and parents to take part in, including opening ceremonies, a swap meet to celebrate Daisy’s 130th anniversary, the annual Barter Bar, BB Church, closing ceremonies and a reserved water park on the final evening that nearly all teams stayed to enjoy.
Premiere collectors of Daisy memorabilia set up tables at the event to display, buy, sell and trade Daisy artifacts at the swap meet. At the Barter Bar, hundreds crammed into the convention center to trade items specific to their home state.
“For our group, this is the icing on the cake,” Baker said. “We practice for 14, 15 weeks out of the year, and if there’s not something at the end of the tunnel, you lose good shooters.”
Daisy, which announced it had been acquired by Gamo, USA days after Nationals, presented travel awards up to $1,500 to each team that competed in the match.
For Kruger and the 2016 national champion Pierre Junior Shooters from South Dakota, the experience and lessons learned from one weekend of shooting against the country’s best may last a lifetime.
“Shooting is a mental sport,” Kruger said. “There are so many lessons in life you can take from this: when you have that bad shot, the ability to come back and not let it wreck the rest of the target.”
It would be difficult to have found anyone in the crowd of 2,000 National attendees to argue with that. Or with Baker’s point that all youth would be better served if they learned safe firearm handling.
“People are recognizing that even though they are youth, they can still be given the responsibility to handle things in life if they do them safely,” Baker said.
51st annual Daisy National BB Gun Championship Match results
1. Grace Hockenberry (Spring Mills, Pennsylvania) 487
2. Garett Dall (Leavenworth, Kansas) 483
3. Gracie Hoyt (Mullen, Nebraska) 482
1. Pierre Junior Shooters (Pierre, South Dakota) 2,374
2. Wyandotte County 4-H (Kansas City, Kansas) 2,368
3. Spink Co. Shooting Sports (Redfield, South Dakota) 2,367
1. Alisha McMartin (Hartford, South Dakota) 387
2. Matthew Wood (Snellville, Georgia) 385
3. Daniel Smith (Rogers, Arkansas) 384
1. Tony Stacy (Monroe, Georgia) 479
2. Naila Jordan (Mershon, Georgia) 474
3. Eric Bird (Kansas City, Kansas) 474
* 100-point test not required
Full results online at www.orionscoringsystem.com/daisy
For more information on how to start a Daisy BB gun program, curriculums, products and more, go to www.daisy.com.