Athletes of the Walhalla High School Army JROTC rifle team from Walhalla, South Carolina, really stand out on the range – not just for their performances, but for their unique rifles on the firing line.
The stocks are beautiful, rich displays of enthusiasm and perseverance, hand-crafted for the cadet who earned each drop of color. It’s a team tradition set nearly a decade ago that has gone on to keep the Walhalla Razorback athletes aimed toward an exciting ambition – and it’s fun to look at, too.
In April, the team competed in the 2023 JROTC Service Championship series held in Ohio, Alabama and Utah. The event, conducted by the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP), is a three-position precision and sporter air rifle competition for high school athletes. Walhalla’s Elaine Saint earned third overall in the sporter class at the Ohio match (eighth overall out of nearly 300 Army JROTC competitors between the three locations), while teammate Keagan Dean also finished within the top 10 athletes in Ohio.
COL Kevin Mangan, head coach of the rifle team, was there to witness it all. He’s been coaching at Walhalla for 17 years, always encouraging his athletes to reach higher by setting objectives – no matter how big or small they may be.
“Easy, tangible goals can be a great motivator, from beginners to more advanced athletes,” he explained. “Sometimes, it can be something as simple as, ‘Shoot a PR (personal record) and you get a vote on where we eat on a road trip.’”
Other times, the goal is a little more colorful.
The team’s artful rifle tradition manifested eight years ago when one of Walhalla’s cadets, Matthew Smith, placed at the JROTC Service Championships. After his success, he asked his coach if he could get his stock painted and personalized. To Smith’s delight, Mangan said yes.
Matthew’s theme of choice was a Gator Claw to display his love of his favorite college team, the Florida Gators. Matt Carroll, who, at the time, managed the air gun range at CMP’s southern location in Alabama, designed the rifle himself.
Other team members liked the idea of customizing a rifle stock so much that they asked their coach about decorating their own rifles. Mangan was onboard with the idea, but with a catch.
“I made the standard – shoot a 530 at a sporter match and you can customize your stock,” he explained.
Mangan thought it was a high enough mark that only one cadet a year might make it – but, to his surprise and delight, the athletes started working toward the score and achieving it.
“They cared about meeting the goal more than the results of the match,” he joked.
Now, reaching the honor of a painted rifle stock has become the ultimate focus of the varsity athletes. This season alone, four students have earned their custom stocks, including two freshman athletes, which has never happened in the history of the tradition.
“It gets established as the threshold for success,” Mangan said of the rifle painting. “We have smaller goals set as well, like score 200 and a rifle is assigned to you, and at 250, you name your rifle – just little things to continue to work toward.”
Once an athlete reaches the 530 score, he or she gets to pick the subject of the art on the rifle stock. Mangan’s wife and daughters take on the graphic work along with Walhalla’s art department. From The Lion King to The Chronicles of Narnia to Hunter x Hunter, each athlete’s theme represents their own personalities and the hard work they’ve accomplished on the range.
To commemorate the rifle team’s tradition, Walhalla High School has allocated a trophy case in the student common area to display stocks of graduated athletes. So far, there have been 11 painted rifles, with more added each year.
“It has become the thing to accomplish for the Walhalla JROTC Rifle team,” Mangan said.
Despite the emphasis on performance milestones, Mangan isn’t interested in how well his athletes score – there’s a more profound goal to be met in order to be a successful Razorback.
“Scores are nice but, how good of a teammate are you?” Mangan said.
“Team results are directly affected by support for each other when things are not going well,” he went on. “Embrace the journey and enjoy the experience instead of a score defining who you are.”
What began as a simple question has sparked lasting inspiration within the Walhalla rifle team. Yet, to Mangan, nothing stands out more vibrantly than true sportsmanship.
— By Ashley Dugan, CMP Staff Writer
The Civilian Marksmanship Program is a federally chartered 501 (c) (3) non-profit corporation. It is dedicated to firearm safety and marksmanship training and to the promotion of marksmanship competition for citizens of the United States. For more information about the CMP and its programs, log onto www.TheCMP.org.