The Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (JROTC) rifle team at Lejeune High School finished fourth in a national competition called the Air Rifle New Shooter League, one of the largest air rifle leagues in the world. Throughout 10 weeks from January to April, shooters from schools and junior rifle clubs across the United States competed in eight mail-in, or virtual, matches where target sheets were judged and scored automatically by computers.

In each matchup shooters fire from three positions - prone, standing and kneeling. Each shooter fires 10 rounds from each position at a distance of 10 meters with bullseye shots being worth 10 points. The sum of the 30 shots is the individual shooter’s score. The maximum individual score possible is 300, and the team’s top four shooters’ scores are added up for the team total. “New shooters” are considered athletes who had their first competition after August 1, 2018.

“I was surprised,” said LHS Marine JROTC Instructor and shooting coach Master Gunnery Sgt. James Gardiner of his team’s fourth place finish. “Prior to the second match, the highest the four shooters ever shot was in the high 900s. I was very surprised that they shot above 1,000 the first time they did, but once they broke the 1,000 mark they continued to improve.”

LHS, which finished with a record of 6-2, averaged a team score of 1,025.75 throughout the competition. The nation’s top finisher, undefeated Ozark High School in Missouri, averaged 1,053.38. Lejeune’s top “new shooter” was sophomore team captain Emma Thatcher, who averaged 263 points per match.

“Our team did really good this year,” said Thatcher, whose father is a Navy Corpsman. “I’m really proud of us because I feel like this year we’ve worked really hard and we’ve improved a lot.”

Hard work and dedication is always required to excel in anything, but it holds particularly true in marksmanship where the margin for error is slippery and slim. That’s why members of the rifle team get to school over an hour before classes start to practice shooting. It is that kind of effort and determination that enabled them to finish fourth in the national competition, according to senior shooter Kayla Tomlinson.

“We all have just a really close bond with each other,” said Tomlinson. “We all have the motivation to shoot, and we’re dedicated to being the best that we can be.”

That dedicated mindset is fostered by LHS’s JROTC instructors Gardiner and retired USMC Maj. Brian Griffing.

“(Coach Gardiner) pushes us to do our best,” Thatcher said. “When we have problems with the rifles, he will talk to us and help us fix it. If we have a problem with the position, he will get one-on-one with us and be like, ‘How do you feel with that shot?’, because when you shoot you need to be as comfortable as possible.”

Tomlinson seconds the notion that Gardiner has been a key influencer on the success and overall attitude of the shooting team.

“He’s definitely motivated us a lot to come in at least three days a week in the morning,” Tomlinson said. “(He is) always encouraging us. Even on our bad days he tells how we can still do better.”

What is more important to these shooters and their instructors than finishing fourth in the nation is the lessons learned and the family-like bonds built between the team members. Atop the list of applicable life lessons learned through shooting is discipline.

“Shooting is all about discipline,” said Griffing. “Not just the discipline of getting here every morning and shooting, but the discipline while they’re shooting to go through their proper set of procedures and do it time and again repeatedly the same way, the right way, every time, over and over again until it becomes a muscle memory.”

Griffing, who served in the Marine Corps for 18 years as a combat engineer officer, also understands the kind of mental toughness and focus required to become a successful marksman.

“They’ve got spotting scopes, so they can look through their spotting scope, see their shot, and if they make a bad shot, they’re going to see it,” Griffing said. “They’ve got to immediately push that out of their head in terms of impatience, anger, frustration or anything like that, and understand that ‘OK, that was a mistake. Here are the adjustments I need to make to account for that mistake,’ and move forward with your next shot. That’s a good skill to be able to apply to your life as a whole.”

Beyond competing and trying their best, the shooters know that the relationships they’ve built throughout the season have been special and just as valuable as the life lessons learned.

“My favorite part (of competing) is getting to be with my team because they are like my family,” Thatcher said. “Shooting with them and seeing the overall score together is one of my favorite parts knowing that we worked hard together.” The sophomore’s family is PCSing to Virginia soon.

Tomlinson, who plans to move to California following graduation to be closer to her father, a retired USMC staff sergeant, also relishes the atmosphere of JROTC.

“I just like the family that JROTC builds all together,” Tomlinson said. “It’s really heartwarming.”

In order to become a team member in the new shooter’s league at LHS, students must take the fall marksmanship course to qualify. That course includes instruction on safety measures and marksmanship basics to set a foundation for new shooters. Those that qualify high enough in the course are eligible to try out for the rifle team.

The LHS rifle team’s final match of the year will be on Wednesday, May 14 at 4:00 p.m. at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, N.C.