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Marksmanship's a sport on the upswing

European Stars & Stripes
Wiesbaden, Germany | April 18, 2014

The 2013-14 DODDS-Europe marksmanship champion, set to be determined Saturday at Wiesbaden, will likely emerge from the familiar group of longstanding contenders Ansbach, Hohenfels, Patch and Vilseck.

But that status quo might be on the verge of changing.

A number of schools are set to make the DODDS-Europe marksmanship scene more crowded in the next few years. The gradual influx of new competitors, including many schools on Air Force bases, threatens to disrupt the existing power structure atop a sport long limited to Army-affiliated schools.

Not that the reigning powers mind the competition.

“It is only going to get better over the next several years,” said Mitchell Pollock, coach of reigning champion Vilseck.

Marksmanship as a DODDS-Europe sport grew from roots in the Army Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps in the 1970s and 80s, said Robert Hase, a retired major centrally involved in the process and is now director of Army instruction for DODDS-Europe. Instructors began forming teams, borrowing vans from the base’s motor pool and travelling to a centrally-located range for competition. Eventually, Hase said, the Army pushed DODDS-Europe to install more marksmanship ranges at its schools.

“It became a fairly highly-developed program at school level,” Hase said.

With the Army and DODDS-Europe both invested in the program and its associated costs rising, Hase said, the organizations came to an agreement. The Army would continue providing equipment, including the necessary precision air rifles that today cost as much as $2,000 apiece, and DODDS-Europe would establish marksmanship as a varsity sport, with the attendant funding for coaches and transportation.

That process was complete by the early 90s, and the sport grew to include 18 teams in three conferences at its height. The steady closure of bases and schools over the intervening years cut that number almost in half.

Now, however, the sport is growing again, even as schools continue to close amidst a persistent drawdown of American forces in Europe.

A 2009 Air Force decision to allow JROTC programs to participate in marksmanship opened the door for a new set of schools to enter the ranks. The first through that door was Alconbury, a small school in the United Kingdom that launched its marksmanship program in 2009. At first, the school instituted a sporter team, a version of marksmanship that uses less-expensive equipment. Two years ago, the program graduated to precision rifles and, in the words of coach Lowell Bartmess, “into the world of varsity sports.”

Bitburg, soon to relocate to a new school at nearby Spangdahlem, is on the cusp of full entry into DODDS-Europe marksmanship. Ramstein has “expressed interest,” DODDS-Europe athletic director Karen Seadore said.

The birth of a DODDS-Europe marksmanship program is currently unfolding at Kaiserslautern.

Retired Air Force Lt. Col Robert C. Meyer came to Kaiserslautern High School in 2012 as senior aerospace science instructor. After convincing the administration to sign off on the project, Meyer set to work establishing a marksmanship program.

Meyer refers to his three-year template as a “crawl-walk-run plan.” This year will see the debut of a four-lane shooting range constructed in an unused building on the school’s campus. Meyer will spend the next few months introducing the sport to his students in what he called an “awareness year.” He’ll introduce intramural competition next year, and hopefully a varsity squad in year three. Soon after, a new Kaiserslautern High is set to be built, and plans call for a shooting range.

If and when the Raiders rise to the varsity level, they’ll find an old foe awaiting them.

Wiesbaden, now home to U.S. Army Europe headquarters and a fast-growing high school, is in its second year of DODDS-Europe marksmanship. Though their season’s results indicate they’re not yet in the championship mix, the Warriors’ scores are rising, and the school boasts a soaring population, a recent history of athletic success and the shiny new nine-lane range that will host this weekend’s European championship meet. Wiesbaden qualified for its first European championship meet this season alongside Patch, Baumholder, Ansbach, Vilseck and Hohenfels.

Wiesbaden coach Darryl Hensley, who is also the school’s senior army JROTC instructor, said he’s following the example set by Patch, a program he called “the best in Europe.”

“We look up to them very much,” Hensley said, adding that Patch shooters and coaches “willingly share tips” with their Warrior opponents.

All of this growth begs the question: how can any sport afford to expand in an era of tightening budgets?

There is a unique dimension to marksmanship that makes it less vulnerable to such financial constraints. While equipment and coaches are necessary costs, marksmanship can be rendered impervious to the most onerous of athletic expenses: travel.

Teams can shoot at their home range and submit scores to compare with those of their opponents in what is known as “postal” competition. Alconbury and Italy-based Vicenza do this regularly; on Jan. 18, DODDS-Europe saved a bundle by having all 10 participating teams stay home in two entirely postal meets.

Hase cautions that this is not an ideal situation as it denies shooters the valuable experience of direct, in-person competition.

“We can still essentially have a competition,” Hase said. “It doesn’t have the same developmental effect…but it’s a good alternative.”

Developmental benefits are a key issue for Hase and DODDS-Europe marksmanship coaches. Hase emphasized the idea that marksmanship imparts valuable life skills like self-discipline, focus and anger management. He also pointed out that marksmanship can be a viable choice for students who lack an aptitude for more mainstream sports.

“It appeals to a section of the student population that’s not athletically gifted,” said Hase, adding that success on the range can lead to a scholarship at a service academy or university offering the sport. “A lot of people can excel at marksmanship that maybe can’t be on the football team.”

With co-ed participation, manageable expenses, potential college opportunities and a natural synergy with the military communities that host it, marksmanship is in an enviable position among DODDS-Europe sports. The collegial, collaborative relationship that exists between programs only adds to the sense of optimism around the sport.

“The sportsmanship in this sport is the best I’ve seen in DODDS-Europe,” Hensley said. “We do our best to cheer each other on.”

In the next few years, that cheering section could get a lot louder.

Twitter: @broomestripes

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