ISU's Red Rifles team aims for excellence


March 5, 2003, 06:41 PM
ISU's Red Rifles team aims for excellence

By Kelly Josephsen
Pantagraph staff

NORMAL -- Illinois State University sophomore Joe Harris has huge goals, but at 3 p.m. each Wednesday, he narrows them down to a single black dot the size of a period.
The Normal native is captain of the Red Rifles, a team of eight men and women enrolled as cadets in ISU's Army ROTC program. For two years, they've competed in drills where they lay, stand or kneel with rifle held steady; shooting at a target 50 feet away.

The target is the size of a 50-cent piece. Just hitting that isn't good enough.

To be perfect, a shooter aims for the center of the target, a single black dot the size of a period. That's where Harris sets his rifle's sights -- and his own -- as he practices a sport that evokes words such as concentration, focus and discipline.

"It's all about learning how to control your breathing, get your heart rate down; relax yourself," Harris said. "There's no way you can shoot if you have any nerves at all."

The discipline of rifle shooting is a world unto itself.

Coach Joe Miller has students get into their shooting stance over and over, then asks them to stand perfectly still, muscles tensed to shoot.

When he sees something he likes, he takes the gun away.

Miller does it to force the students to focus on their bodies -- where their feet are positioned, how their weight is distributed, the angle at which they've cocked their elbow.

"We work hard to get their form right and to hold the rifle as steady as possible -- and then to do that consistently," Miller said. "It's a different skill set; you don't need exceptional strength, but you do need small-motor control, balance and discipline."

There's that word again, and it's no wonder, says ISU military science instructor Randy Boyd.

When the team goes to meets, faculty adviser Boyd makes sure they arrive early and take time to quell their nerves. "The blood's flowing; the adrenaline is there. ... You'll see our shooters laying down on their mats, eyes closed, focusing on how to do well," Boyd said.

At the Illinois State ROTC Championship Feb. 22 in Streator, Harris said, a few of his teammates got so relaxed they fell asleep. Apparently, it wasn't a bad idea: The Rifles took first place out of eight teams and all six ISU shooters placed in the top 11 of more than 50 competitors.

A group of about 20 "stalwarts" meets every Wednesday in the bowels of Redbird Arena for three hours of precision air rifle practice, Boyd said. Those who show skill become members of the Red Rifles, where they use .22-caliber target rifles to aim for that tiny dot.

The Rifles practice every Thursday in Streator, and that's where the outside help comes in.

The team is lucky that Jim Kincaide was willing to donate range time at his Sandy Ford Sportsman's Club. "He's saved us approximately $5,000 in range fees in the last 12 months," Boyd said. Another gift is from Miller and Jeff Simpson, National Rifle Association certified instructors who donate their time. Their expertise is priceless, Boyd said.

Also, the Friends of the NRA has a grant program that helped the Rifles buy 90 percent of their equipment, which isn't cheap. Boyd said one rifle can cost $1,000 or more, and shooters need shooting gloves and jackets, blocks to elevate rifles, rifle stands, scopes, etc.

Harris says the benefits of competition make the costs worthwhile.

The lifelong hunter's skills have improved rapidly in the year and a half he's been involved, and the discipline he's learned helps in everything from passing exams to giving speeches.

Plus, Harris wants to keep competing after college. The criminal justice sciences major, who will be commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation and wants a career with a military police unit, has his eye on trying out for the elite Army Marksmanship Unit.

"It's kind of like saying you want to play professional football, but it's definitely a goal to shoot for," Harris said. "You can't help but look at it."

And since the goal he currently shoots for is a speck 50 feet away, the idea may not be so crazy.

Miller said students like Harris can expect to continue to improve -- most elite shooters are in their late 20s and early 30s because "it takes years to develop this skill."

And the Red Rifles? "We're climbing the ladder. We're well on our way."

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