High school rifle teams carry on skills, sport with deep roots in Pennsylvania
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The Northeast Pennsylvania Rifle League is home to the ultimate equal opportunity high school sport in which striving to control mind and body along with a willingness to be part of a team are the primary requirements.
Whether you are male or female.
“The nice thing about rifle is it’s the only sport that’s in both the summer and winter Olympics, and it’s the only [scholastic] co-ed sport,” said Jody Miller, who is completing his 25th season as Liberty’s rifle coach.
The NEPARL is a small-bore, prone league with the competitors using a .22-caliber bolt-action rifle to shoot at targets set up 50 feet away.
“(Physical) training helps with strength and stamina; it’ll lower your pulse rate if you’re in condition,” said Emmaus senior Molly Yard, who also plays softball. “But if my teammate Rowan (Kratz) can lift 200 pounds and I can only lift 50, we’re still going to have equal opportunities as shooters.”
“The team aspect is great. It feels like a family to me, and it’s fun to do,” said Freedom High School senior Cooper Lahman, who joined the Patriots’ program as a sophomore.
“I’ve been on the team for two years; I had a friend on the team who told me about it,” added Lahman’s senior teammate Drew Craven. “I love the sport, and it’s helped me manage my patience.”
Eleven teams make up the Northeast Pennsylvania Rifle League including Emmaus, Freedom, Liberty, Salisbury and Southern Lehigh. The others are Berwick, East Stroudsburg North, East Stroudsburg South, Kutztown, North Pocono and Stroudsburg.
In all, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) recognized 54 member schools fielding rifle teams during the 2022-23 season, though the organization does not hold a state championship. That’s left to others to conduct.
The NEPRL brings together shooters of all skill levels.
Emmaus’ Griffin Lake won three consecutive state championships (2021-23) and is often the No. 1 shooter as a freshman for West Virginia, currently the top-ranked college team in the country. Lake has been shooting since he was 5 years old.
“It was amazing to watch him when we competed against Emmaus,” Southern Lehigh senior and team captain Aidan Friel said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing him in the Olympics someday, and we can say we shot against him.”
Speaking of the Olympics, former Southern Lehigh captain Jeanne Haverhill went on to shoot for the University of Akron (2018-22) before spending a year in residence at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She’s currently competing as a graduate student at second-ranked Texas Christian University. In early January, Haverhill missed by less than a half-point of being an alternate on the U.S. Olympic women’s air rifle team that will be heading to Paris this summer.
In contrast, Salisbury senior Logan Appleton is typical of many of the league’s rank-and-file shooters. He’s in just his second season with the Falcons.
“Freshman year was COVID, and when I was a sophomore I didn’t hear the announcement (for team signups),” Appleton said shortly after completing his relay against Southern Lehigh during their match Jan. 26 at the Hellertown Sportsmen’s Association indoor range. “Before last year, I had never touched a gun in my life, but I thought I’d like to try something new and I had some friends on the team.
“I’m 1,000 times better than last year. When I first started you would’ve thought I was blind. My highest score is 98 (out of 100), and my goal is to shoot 100. It’s something I’d like to keep on doing … have a gun and go to the range and shoot.”
Guns and school?
The coaches and athletes know their sport is unlike any other, and the topic of guns and the Second Amendment is a polarizing one. Consequently, they are aware one slip-up could not only put a team out of existence but the entire league, too.
Miller noted that if you look at high school yearbooks from the early 1950s nearly every school sponsored a rifle team. Now, there are just five in the Lehigh Valley, and they’re doing everything possible to promote the sport of precision shooting, and that it is a safe activity.
“We want to get more people involved and show it’s totally safe. Sometimes, our sport gets a bad rap because of what’s going on (in the world).”Molly Yard, Emmaus High School senior
For Southern Lehigh coach Rob Gaugler, it’s personal. He once was a team member and captain of the Southern Lehigh rifle team and believes wholeheartedly in the values the sport can develop.
“We don’t take just anybody (at Southern Lehigh),” Gaugler said. “If a student has any disciplinary issues, they’re not allowed to try out for the team.”
“I can’t emphasize enough how safe our sport is. We’ve never had an incident,” said Freedom coach Paul Dorney, who’s been involved for many years as a coach and league officer.
"Our athletic director and athletic department keep me informed who would be ineligible because of athletic, social, guidance or discipline issues," Dorney said. "Safety is always first. The schools and coaches all focus on making sure everyone is always safe and stable. We never have any student who would be a risk."
Molly Yard said Emmaus is helped by the promotion at the grassroots level by East Penn Youth Shooting Sports, a booster club supporting the youth of the East Penn School District who are involved in shooting sports.
“We want to show it’s a fun and safe sport,” Yard said. “We want to get more people involved and show it’s totally safe. Sometimes, our sport gets a bad rap because of what’s going on (in the world).”
The NEPARL’s dual-meet season begins in early December and concludes at the end of January.
It is followed by an all-star match and a team tournament among the squads with the four best regular-season records. The champion, runner-up and third-place teams advance to the state tournament, which is contested at three ranges.
During a varsity dual meet, each team enters 10 shooters who compete in pairs over five relays.
The best five scores are counted toward a team’s overall score. The school with the highest score wins.
“You can’t think about the team you’re shooting against,” said senior Kayla Trinkle, Southern Lehigh’s No. 1 shooter who won the overall championship at the recent all-star meet with a score of 211.9. “You need to have the mindset that every opponent is the same because every target is the same and once you get in position to shoot, it’s just you and the target. That has to be your focus, you and the target.”
Some like to shoot early in the competition. Others prefer to wait. Some are comfortable shooting alongside a particular teammate — often girls are paired with girls and boys with boys.
And sometimes, a coach puts someone first because he or she must leave early for work or another commitment. The visiting team has the choice of shooting on the left or right side of the range.
Each relay starts with a three-minute prep session when the competitors, wearing their shooting jackets, settle in on their mats, start controlling their breathing and zero in on their targets sans bullets.
Once everyone is ready, the competition begins. They have 10 minutes to sight their targets with practice shots at two middle circles and complete single shots at 10 other circles – four in a left column, four in a right column and one each above and below the “sighter” circles.
The goal is perfection, which is a score of 100 10x. Translated, that is 10 shots cleanly taking out a small circle within the 10-point area of each circle.
How many practice shots a competitor takes and how long he or she needs to complete the target varies. Some are done within six to seven minutes; some exhaust nearly the entire 10 minutes.
Liberty’s No. 1 shooter, senior Sarah Stein, says Miller often teases her about how long she takes to complete her relay.
“I usually take a long time,” Stein said with a laugh. “How many sighters I take depends on the day. Sometimes four and sometimes up to nine.”
“I feel comfortable with the 10-minute time limit,” Emmaus’ Yard said. “Some like to get it over quicker. What you want to do is find your NPA (natural point of aim), trigger and pull and be consistent. My goal is three in a row (in the sight target) and then go.”
The order in which the shooters take aim at the 10 counting circles is also a personal preference.
“Everyone does it differently,” Yard said. “Some can do middle top, middle bottom, right column up and down and then left column up and down. Or they can do left to right. I’m always striving for 100-10 and anything less than 100-8 is disappointing. I’ve had some eye problems so some days I see perfectly and other days I can’t see at all.”
“We shoot middle top, middle bottom, left column and right column,” said Stein, who followed her older brothers Caleb and Josiah into the Liberty program. “Column shooting is easier for repositioning.”
The Bethlehem schools shoot at Liberty’s range located in the old welding room, an area few on campus know exists. Salisbury and Southern Lehigh hold their home matches at the Hellertown Sportsmen’s Association, and Emmaus’ home range is at the Unami Fish & Game Association.
Regardless of the range, it is a serene retreat that’s conducive to concentration because no spectators —including parents — are allowed to watch. Teammates congregate in rooms away from the range so as not to be a distraction. Once the 10-minute live shooting begins, the only voices heard are from the coaches offering soft words of encouragement or help in sighting a target.
The PGA Tour would pay for such silence during its golf tournaments.
Match day preparation often is similar to what other athletes go through for more recognizable sports.
“I wouldn’t call it superstition but a pattern,” said Southern Lehigh’s Friel, who ran cross country for the Spartans to help lower his heart rate and improve his conditioning for rifle season. “For me, the mental part is so important, and it begins when I wake up. I take it easy that day. It affects how I eat — I bring the same thing every day to lunch. I go to bed and wake up at the same times. When I get here (at the range), I make sure I don’t do any lifting because I’m shooting the first relay so I don’t help with the setup. I want to keep my arms as rested as possible.”
Aiming for perfection
The NEPARL has become a cauldron for helping shape some of the premier shooters in the state and country. In addition to the nationally recognized Lake, who was like Michael Jordan checking in to work on his jump shot, the league has produced individual state champions Joshua Plum of Liberty in 2015 and Michael Tilley of Southern Lehigh in 2019. Southern Lehigh and Emmaus captured state team titles in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Last Tuesday, Emmaus defended its league team championship by defeating Southern Lehigh in the final.
Many of the league’s best shooters become passionate about the sport and participate year-round in junior club programs.
“We have a solid foundation of kids who practice or compete at clubs,” said Michael Schuler, who coached Emmaus to a second straight regular-season title with a 10-1 record. “From February to November we don’t see the kids, that’s the offseason. So, I can tell if they haven’t shot during that time.”
Yard’s older sister Cassidy competed for Emmaus and joined the North End Rod & Gun Club’s junior program as a freshman. Yard, then a seventh-grader, followed her sister to the New Tripoli facility. Some of her other teammates hone their skills at Guthsville Rod & Gun Club in Orefield.
“I have a hunting license, but I can’t find the time to hunt,” said Yard, whose younger sister Shannon is a junior on Emmaus’ team. “I also shoot shotgun, .22s, pistols. I like high school and club because it’s precision shooting. Shooting year-round helps you get better because of the repetition.”
Southern Lehigh’s Trinkle followed a similar path to New Tripoli but to the Ontelaunee Rod & Gun Club, which boasts one of the best junior programs in the country. That’s where Lake trained and so did Cecelia Ossi of Annandale, New Jersey, who won the 2023 NCAA small-bore championship as a senior at the University of Nebraska.
“I’ve been shooting there since seventh grade,” Trinkle said. “My older sister Brylee is two years older than me. She heard about our high school team on the announcements and joined as a freshman. She did well, and that’s why we both joined Ontelaunee.
“We grew up shooting in our backyard. My dad is a hunter. But some of the kids never shot before coming to the team. I think we have two freshmen who shoot club, but that’s it.”
Trinkle has recorded eight scores of 100 this season but so has Stein, a three-sport athlete who only shoots during the winter season. Brandon Bentzoni of East Stroudsburg South led the league with nine 100s. Teammate Jacob Glavich and Emmaus’ Sanaiya O’Neal also shot eight 100s.
“My dad (Mark) served in the Navy and has guns,” Stein said. “Once every two years or so we’d go to the range and shoot standing up. I never really knew about the rifle team until my brothers joined. I thought it would be a neat thing to do, but I had no past experience other than my father teaching us about gun safety and stressing the importance of it.”
It’s easy to understand why Stein only shoots in-season.
“I play field hockey and lacrosse and play clarinet in the band,” she said. “I wanted a third sport and thought this was something I could do. There’s not a lot of running around like in my other sports. It only takes 15 minutes to come in and shoot so you’re in and out for practice.
“I made varsity as a freshman for our first match and have improved a lot. Coach saw a lot of potential in me and said by my senior year I’d be one of the top shooters.”
As a freshman, Stein said she posted scores in the 98-99 range and boosted that to 99-100 as a junior. Earlier this season, she took home her first 100-10 target and placed sixth at the all-star meet.
“We’re the only sport, if you’re not a club shooter and have never done it before, we can teach you how to shoot and compete,” Miller said. “In four years, they can become pretty good. Some have previous shooting experience with family. Some are hunters. Some never did it before and are looking for an activity to join and show interest.”
"Some have previous shooting experience with family. Some are hunters. Some never did it before and are looking for an activity to join and show interest.”Jody Miller, Liberty High School rifle coach
And sometimes an entire team of non-club shooters can rise up on a particular afternoon and pull off an upset. That’s what happened on Jan. 17 when Dorney’s Freedom squad, which finished the season with a 5-5 record, dealt Emmaus its first loss in two years, 499-42x to 499-33x behind David Blontz’s perfect score at the Liberty range. Blontz and Lahman combined to win the team portion of the all-star meet.
“We are shooting well this time of the season, and we were in a must-win situation having lost some close matches this year,” Dorney said of the big win. “We lost to Emmaus twice last year on the road -- in the regular season and playoffs – and that motivated us. We were at home where we usually shoot well, and we were at full strength with all of our starters.
“When we got out to a great start it built our momentum. We were focused and motivated, we built momentum. We see ourselves as underdogs like USA Hockey was at Lake Placid (1980 Winter Olympics Miracle on Ice) competing against a lot of the powerhouse teams in our league. That is always a great motivator.”
Home on the range
Rifle teams don’t receive the publicity of other high school sports, but they do attract hopeful candidates.
“We are the second-oldest sport at Southern Lehigh; it was started in 1952,” Gaugler said. “The reasons we have a team is tradition and 30-plus kids trying out every year. There’s a demand to want to be part of our team.”
Liberty’s never short of filling out a roster.
“On average, we have 30 to 80 kids try out, and I keep 20-some,” Miller said.
Schuler, who said he learned how to shoot during his stint in the Marines, said he normally has around 35 students try out for the team, and he keeps 20 to 25.
“They sometimes weed themselves out when they realize how much time the kids put in,” Schuler said. “I’ve even had kids come out thinking it’s tossing rifles, like the color guard.”
The NEPARL added Kutztown this season to expand its reach into Berks County. Thanks to a new computer scoring system, teams can compete virtually.
“Our school doesn’t allow us to travel 1 ½ hours so we don’t go to Berwick, but we can still compete against them,” Gaugler said.
How does it work? Southern Lehigh’s team shot at its range, and Berwick shot at its range. The targets were delivered to an independent party who ran them through a computer scoring system. Scores were tallied and a winner was determined.
Liberty also competed virtually against Berwick and lost by the closest of margins. This system also comes in handy when matches are postponed because of inclement weather. It’s also used to score the state championships, which are held at three different sites.
In the end, championships and victories are great, but it’s the bonds the students make with each other and learning to become proficient in a sport they can enjoy for life.
“When I showed up at Southern Lehigh as a freshman, I was new to the school because I had gone to St. Thomas More,” Friel said. “I was welcomed to the team by everybody. I liked that, and that’s what drew me back. And we were incredibly successful.”
“I’ve been accepted into the aerospace program at Auburn University and am looking at other schools, too,” Friel continued. I could see myself continuing to shoot (recreationally) now that I have this experience. I’ve done some shotgun shooting with my uncle and I found I like it.”
“I’m looking at a nursing major so I don’t know if I’ll shoot in college,” Trinkle said, “but I’ll continue shooting at club.”
“The NEPARL is a great co-ed league, and rifle is a great lifetime sport,” Dorney said. “The league is where all student-athletes, male and female, all sizes, all strengths, all heights, compete equally. Where the smallest schools can and have won league titles alongside the larger schools. Where fundamentals, focus, mental toughness and hard work can build success.
“The things learned in interscholastic athletics will carry forward with our athletes for the rest of their lives.”
Corky Blake is a freelance writer who spent nearly 40 years working as a sports writer and editor for The Express-Times and Bethlehem Globe-Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @corkyblake