CHASSAHOWITZKA — At an 80-acre plot inside the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area in northwest Hernando County, five young men with sharp shooting skills and sharp minds accomplished what none of their peers had before.
Members of the Hernando Sportsman's 4-H Club, they earned top honors in March in the state in the senior division of the 4-H shooting sports competition. Today, they will arrive in Grand Island, Neb., to compete in the 4-H National Shooting Sport Invitational.
This Florida championship team, paced by No. 1 state individual Dillon Jenkins, 17, of Spring Hill, also includes his brother, Dalton Jenkins, 18, 15-year-old twins Cody and Kyle Curabba of Dade City, and Chris Downey, 18, of Lutz.
The young men, who have pursued the sport with the 4-H Club for three years, gathered last week to detail the rigors of attaining their prize. They bested six teams from across the state.
In the all-day rifle match, contestants each shot six paper bull's-eye targets at 50 yards — standing, kneeling and prone — then metal silhouettes of baby chicks at 25 yards, turkeys at 50 yards, pigs at 75 yards and rams at 100 yards.
"They were small," Kyle declared, spacing his hands about 5 inches apart.
Cody noted trials for bolt action and semiautomatic weapons, scoped and unscoped, plus a rapid-fire test of 25 seconds over 25 yards, shooting five rounds of ammunition.
With the state competition held for the first time at the Hernando Sportsman's Club range, the local 4-Hers might have had a bit of a home-field advantage. But the weather made for a difficult day.
"The wind was blowing in your face," Dillon said. "I think the dirt blowing in your face was the hardest."
The wind may have accounted for some cross-firing, Kyle added, where someone else's target was hit.
Cody expected a low score due to two cross-fires, likely wind-driven.
The young men, all homeschooled, are well-learned in gun ownership and the feelings that some people have toward guns.
"Nobody likes shooters anymore," said Kyle.
But his avid pursuit of the endeavor figures in his long-range plans: a career in the military, even hoping to gain appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Cody, who will need the skill if he's able to land a job as an FBI agent, also believes people should learn to hunt to sustain their families.
Dillon contends that anyone who's ever going to shoot, whether for sport or self-defense, should learn to do so safely.
Dalton, the quiet team member, said learning about weapons should translate for him into a broader acquaintance with machinery as he aims to pursue a job in diesel mechanics. He acknowledged he can disassemble and reassemble almost any weapon blindfolded, a skill he taught himself, prompted by the shooting sports project.
Hernando 4-H director Nancy Moores noted the shooting sports project emphasizes just that: shooting as a sport.
"There's quite a bit of safety and education in it," she said.
Indeed, said Cody: "It's a sport. We're taught sportsmanship."
Rhonda Curabba, the mother of Kyle and Cody, who handles competition and travel logistics for the team, noted that the quintet, en route to the state title, earned titles at qualifying events at county and regional shoots.
The state team and individual wins, she said, were "totally shocking, surprising, but so nice."
Team coach, club co-leader and 4-H mom Buffy Jenkins said that shooting is just one of the 4-H accomplishments for the team members. Dillon raised this year's grand champion market hog at the Hernando County Fair and Youth Livestock Show to raise money for team expenses; Cody and Kyle won public speaking honors for presentations about shooting as a sport and shooting safety.
The Sportsman's Club's Ken Morgan serves as the 4-H shooters' club leader, his wife, Lisa Morgan, is a rifle instructor, and Bob Bacon is the lead rifle instructor. The Sportsman's Club provides its shooting range for the 4-Hers and buys most of the ammunition.
The trip to the weeklong national invitational will cost about $5,000.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.