It's 4 p.m. and save for the intermittent popping sounds of air rifles hitting their targets, it is eerily still in the cafeteria at Pasco High. Indeed, "tense" might be a good word for the target practice session going on for members of the school's air rifle team as one after another, they take aim from a prone position on the tile floor. When they are done, they roll on their backs to rest for a bit, heaving a collective sigh. As with the future 13 practices, they all know that this one counts. Big time.
There's an important competition coming up and the scores they secure in practice will determine who's going to be shooting for Pasco High. Of the seven-member air rifle team, only five can be chosen to represent their school at the Navy Junior ROTC Service Championship to be held Feb. 26-28 on the shores of Lake Erie at Camp Perry near Port Clinton, Ohio.
The four top-scoring air rifle teams from that competition will have the opportunity to move on to the national competition at Fort Benning, Ga., on March 27-28.
No doubt all seven Pasco team members have their sights set on going.
"We're very competitive — very competitive," said the team's captain, Sean Carroll, 17.
"It's a dogfight to see who's going to go," said Navy Junior ROTC Master Chief Mike Pittman, who coaches the air rifle team.
Pasco will be one of two Florida schools to compete at the service championship after landing a runner-up spot behind Oviedo High at the state championship in Orlando in December.
Kudos for the Pasco team and also the individuals who stepped up. Nicholas Cordoba, 18, took a gold medal in prone position shooting and silver in kneeling. Sean took a gold medal in kneeling and Gregory Thomas, 17, landed a bronze medal in kneeling at the state championship.
Not too shabby for a team so young.
"Other than BB guns and a little skeet shooting and video games, I've never done this before," Sean said.
While there have been Junior ROTC air rifle teams in the past at Pasco High, it's been a sporadic commitment. Pittman, who for the past three years has overseen the program with Commander Ed Flores, re-established the air rifle team last year after being awarded a $8,500 grant from the Friends of the National Rifle Association.
"That allowed us to buy equipment," he said.
Then it was time to assemble a team — not an altogether easy task.
"Last year, 31 cadets expressed an interest in joining up, and I wound up with five," Pittman said. "This year I started with 17 and ended up with seven."
That's because there is much that's expected from this elite kind of group.
Being a member of the air rifle team takes the most commitment, dedication and concentration of all Navy Junior ROTC activities, Pittman said. "It's remarkable at this level how you see their grades come up in school. If they don't keep their grades up they don't compete."
"There's a lot of mental preparation that goes into this. It takes commitment, dedication and concentration. They're shooting from 10 meters — 33 feet — and trying to hit a bull's-eye that's about the size of a pencil lead," he said, "It's a thinking man's sport. Most people think that it's physical, but it's not. It's 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental."
There's also plenty of research and studying that cadets must do on their own time, Pittman said, noting the pages of written work he assigned over the winter break. Team members are required to keep their grades up, set goals and write self evaluations in their journals on a regular basis. Then there are the visualization skills they must work on to help hone their skills.
"A lot of cadets just don't want to do that," he said.
But these seven do.
Other than Nicholas Cordoba and Sean Carroll, the air rifle team members are Gregory Thomas, Jacob Carroll, Austen Crowder, Randall Trowbridge and Christopher Blickhan.