Rifle Team brings home high ranks in NRA Nationals

By Sydney Bucholtz

Features Editor

Through three years of honing their skills together and growing as a team and individually, the Canisius Rifle Team’s core, dedicated students experienced a significant payoff at their recent Nationals competition. Before these students had the chance to relax over Spring Break, they were among 90 other competitors representing 17 different schools in Fort Benning, Ga. The seasoned team brought home fourth place in Smallbore (.22 caliber) rifle, eighth place in air rifle, and a combined aggregate score of seventh pace.

“For college club shooting sports the NRA Intercollegiate Nationals is the pinnacle. Just to qualify to be able to compete there is an accomplishment. It is what we strive for each year,” said coach Scott Clark. “Several of the students photos are in NRA publications from previous years Nationals competitions. It is kind of like going to the Super Bowl.”

While the team had a marked improvement in performance, the students have also individually had the chance to show their expanded skills.

“I had never touched a gun before the first information meeting I went to my freshman year,” said Lauren Reno, one of the team’s captains. “The sport is definitely an undertaking to learn, as it is very precise. I loved the experience of learning the sport because as a newbie I made leaps and bounds in my performance at every match. At the beginning, there is a lot of room for improvement and making small adjustments to my shot process was rewarded in huge increases in points. Now that I have a hold on the mechanics, it has become much more of a mental game for me. Treating each shot ‘as its own match’ and starting fresh for each of the 60 shots in a match is always a challenge.

“My favorite part of Nationals is always bonding with the team,” Reno continued. “When we are practicing, there is not a lot of room for socializing and getting closer to one another.” Being that most of the matches during the school year are overnight trips, and long rides in the van, the team has a tendency to get tired fairly quickly.

“However,” she said, “for Nationals we have so much longer to spend with one another, and the inside jokes and insanity that ensues is the best kind of fun. My favorite part of this trip was probably ambushing the boys with nerf guns we had won at a raffle section of the competition on the way to dinner one night.”

Although Reno feels that there is still room for improvement, she is proud of her scores, being that she has definitely improved since last year. “Nationals is important to the team because it helps expose us to a huge population of college competitive shooters and expand our knowledge of the sport,” she said. “While at Fort Benning, we shoot on Olympic ranges for the the Army Marksmanship Unit.”
Domenic Romanello is a rifle team member who grew up with the sport. “I have always loved shooting,” he said. “I was an NRA muzzleloader instructor for a summer and taught kids how to shoot .58 caliber rifles, and even made my own lead rounds.” During the school year, he works at Cabela’s selling shooting products, and when he heard about Canisius’ team, he wanted to give it a shot.
“My favorite part of Nationals is always the fun shoot,” Romanello said. “Normally it actually involves shooting, this year it was just outdoor games. We are always the most excited team.”
Although he recognizes a good deal of improvement this year, Romanello does not feel that his performance at Nationals was his best work. “While I can break 500 with both guns, at Nationals I was in the 470s. The team did great though, especially Elias who I think PRed.
“Nationals is the best competition all year because you are on the line with dozens of other shooters in nearly a hundred shooting lanes,” he continued. “People come from all over, this year there were teams from North Dakota and New Mexico. It’s also the only competition with workshops from the army marksmanship unit, many of them are Olympians.”

Catherine Fike had been to shooting ranges a couple time since her freshman year with ROTC, but still did not know much about rifle team. “At the start of my sophomore year, I saw a flyer for a rifle team informational meeting. I decided it couldn’t hurt to sit in on the meeting, and it sounded very interesting,” said Fike. “I started going to the range when I could, and my shooting started to improve. I went to a few matches with the team and continued from there.”
Before her freshman year, Fike had never shot at all, and before this year, she had never competed. “I learned through practice and our incredible coaches and slowly, my shooting started to get a lot better,” she said. “It was definitely a sport that required a lot more patience than I was used to, but it eventually became very therapeutic to be able to go down and shoot. Every time I go, I focus on getting better, but it is a nice escape from the stress of school and life.”
Fike described how the team had been shooting together for two years before she joined. “I was definitely ‘the new kid,’ but the team welcomed me in and made me feel like I had been there since the beginning,” she said. “This team truly is like a family and Nationals were a great opportunity to spend time with such good friends.”

Like Romanello, Fike liked the fun shoot portion of the competition the most. “This is an event where all the teams participate in some form of shooting-related competition,” she added. “This year, we played games like cornhole, soccer, golf, and frisbee in order to score the most points of all the teams. This was a great way to have fun and unwind with the team, as well as other competitors before the competition began.”
While this was her first year of shooting and she feels that many improvements are still to be made, Fike feels “very proud of the progress I made throughout the year, and even being able to compete at Nationals,” as she put it. “I hit a personal record at almost every match this year, and I hope to continue that improvement next year.”
“This year, the team placed the highest overall, as well as individually for some, that they have since they started competing together,” Fike said. Also, she added, this was the team’s last trip with Romanello. “It was our last team trip with Dom, which made it very bittersweet, yet a very rewarding experience.”

“I knew,” said Jared Westhoven, the team’s second Captain, “I wanted to be a part of the rifle club from the moment I first toured Canisius. I was unaware that we had a competitive team, I thought it was just a club that shot rifles for fun and stress relief. The first week of classes my freshman year, I noticed that the range was open and I asked the coach how I would go about joining. He taught me some range safety, handed me a club rifle, got me settled into a decent prone position, and told me to try it out. I pulled back my target and with one look, the coach handed me a team rifle and jacket while saying, ‘Welcome to the team.’”
When he was a boy scout, West would shoot BB rifles recreationally once per month. In high school, he was invited to his uncle’s police range to shoot police-issue sidearms, all the while learning the safety and fundamentals of shooting. “However,” he said, “I never fired .22 rifles or .177 air rifles like the ones in this sport.”
“I had no idea there was an actual sport connected to shooting targets aside from the biathlon in the Olympics. After joining the team, I came to realize that the sport was pretty big,” he continued. The rifle team travels to other teams across the country, including MIT in Boston, Massachusetts, Yale and USCGA in New Haven, Connecticut, and University of Akron in Akron, Ohio.
“Luckily, this is not a sport that you need to be raised in to do well,” he said. “Several people on this team, including myself, came in with zero experience in precision rifle, and here we are doing well enough to qualify and compete in nationals.”
West appreciated how close the team got to be on this Nationals trip especially. “We had constant laughs, shared tons of stories, and really got to enjoy time together,” he said. “To me, it felt like a mini vacation with a great group of friends, nice weather, and rifles.”
“I personally feel that I have grown from my three years at Nationals,” West reflected. “In years past, I was surely nervous being on a new range and being in such a prestigious event. This year I felt more confident. I knew we were competitive with most of the teams that were there. I was able to get into the right mentality this year. I focused on each shot separately, I left every bad shot in the past, I was not over excited for each good shot nor did not worry about anything else around me, except the clock. My mentality going into and throughout the whole competition has improved over the past three years being on this team. It may not be my all-time personal record, but this match was one of the best matches I shot, solely on how balanced and zoned in I was.”
West would like to thank the team for “such an amazing week in Georgia,” he said. “From the second we gathered to pack the gear we clicked and could not stop laughing for the entire trip. Without you guys, this would have been just a trip to another state to shoot and do homework. You guys made this trip enjoyable and memorable.”

He also would like to express thanks to Coach Clark and Coach Wood. “You both have taught us everything we needed to get to Nationals and even more when we arrived, so this weekend would not have been as successful without you both,” he said.

Coach Clark added, “Traveling with this group is always an experience. They all get along and have fun. They don’t take anything too serious and help make it easy on the coaches when we travel. I really appreciate getting to know them away from the range and away from the academics. I have two sons myself but as I get to know students one the course of 3-4 years you start to appreciate their growth and development and I am proud of the young adults that they become.”

Over the past ten years, Clark has been working with numerous shooting sports programs through Boy Scouts and the American legion. Additionally, he is an NRA certified Range Safety Officer, rifle, pistol and shotgun instructor.

Other coaches who provide the team with immense help include Canisius Alum John Beyer, as well as MSgt. Dwayne Wood, Ret. and MSgt Alan Payne, Ret. from ROTC. “We couldn’t run the team with out all of their help,” said Scott.
“The current group of students that make up the core of the team have been together for 3 years now,” he said. “They have really grown as a team and honed their skills. Most of the came in their freshman year with little or no shooting experience. I couldn’t be happier with their development. Hopefully with another year under their belts next year they can compete for a championship as seniors.”

The Canisius Rifle Team is competing against schools at the national level, who have much larger programs and budgets, however the team has been improving regardless. “I don’t think any of us expected a jump to 4th place in Smallbore rifle,” Scott said. “In the previous two years we have finished in the bottom third so our improvement this year was a welcomed surprise. I hope it just sets our expectations that much higher this next year.

“This is a 100% volunteer position for me,” Scott said. “I love working with the students, building those friendships and seeing them develop and watching them grow. I have been involved with many other youth activities [through] Boy Scouts and the American Legion with my own children and love doing it.”
In the wake of these accomplishments, the rifle team encourages those who are interested in rifling to give the team a try. “I’d like to add that shooting is a safe sport,” said Romanello. “We have never had an injury in my three years on the team. It is also a calming activity. Nothing takes away the stress like shooting down at the range. I hope that many other students will come down and shoot! It’s open to everyone, and your first time is free.”

Reno added, “If anyone at Canisius is curious or would like to learn more, I know that we would love to welcome you to the range. I have the Canisius Rifle Team to thank for educating me in proper gun use and handling, so if you are interested in learning more about that, please stop by!”

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