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Eagles gunning for honors

Local club boasts national caliber air rifle sharpshooters

   
   Sports Editor
   Madras can lay claim to being the "shooting capital" of the state. At least an event staged Saturday at the Mount Jefferson Rifle Association made such a claim defensible.
   For Madras area athletes, getting to say they trained with someone who had a shot at the Olympics is a rarity. Enough that one would suspect there would have been notice had such happened here.
   Yet, a quintet of Jefferson County youth who gave their best shots at a Saturday morning competition can say they have been working with teammates of nationally-known caliber for most of this century. One member of the High Desert Eagles team, Alex Culbertson, will have his college studies at Murray State in Kentucky paid for once he graduates from high school in Salem, next spring. Another, Vancouver, Wash.'s Sarah Blakeslee, has a chance to make the United States' junior national team in coming months, even though she is only a junior in high school.
   Coincidentally, the shots Blakeslee, Culbertson and their Eagles teammates made Saturday were made with actual rather than figurative ammunition.
   That's because the competitors were firing at targets in air rifle competition. But it wasn't exactly those Daisy or "Red Rider" BB rifles which many remember as a childhood Christmas gift that were being used.
   While most BB guns can be purchased for about the cost of everyday bowling ball, the precision air rifles used by nationally-rated competitors require investing in European imports which cost upwards of $1,500, noted Ken Gathman.
   Gathman -- a Redmond resident who serves as leader of the junior program at the local Mount Jefferson Rifle, Archery and Pistol Club located near the Madras Speedway and Airport -- is a virtual Pied Piper.
   His teaching and experience as a coach and coordinator for the air rifle competitions, plus small-bore (.22 caliber) shooting events, draw not just Blakeslee and Culbertson, but others from significant distances, like Lloyd and Robert Dow from Hillsboro.
   With the training provided by Gathman, plus Joe Morgan and other local adult enthusiasts, youngsters like Ashley Poe, Shasta Little, Jacob DeHaan, Daniel Casey and Clif Little stand to be making more of a name for themselves.
   "When I started, I practiced about once a week. After a year or so I was going out twice a week. Then I started shooting about four times a week for the past year or so," Blakeslee explained of the kind of dedication the younger shooters may need to put in to match her rise to national notoriety in a matter of four years of training.
   "He (Gathman) is the reason I come over here," Blakeslee explained. Her father, Lou Blakeslee made it clear he felt the coaching at the Mount Jefferson facility worth the drive of nearly 150 minutes each way.
   Young men and women who shot in the event known as a "Three-Position" competition Dec. 15 at the nearby range were hitting the bull's-eye more than half the time.
   Basketball players would have to make 20 in a row, and most of them without touching the rim, to match how well the top shooters were at finding their targets when in the prone position on Saturday. Air rifle shooters use pellets less than a-tenth of an inch across the head for each event.
   Shooters generally test some different sizes of pellets to see which performs best for them, Blakeslee explained. Before deciding the specific ammunition they use for competition, shooters usually run some different sizes to see if they might be shooting better with one than another. Sometimes a .077 versus a .078 size pellet head can actually make a difference, Blakeslee noted.
   She said learning to focus while ignoring minor mistakes was just one of the things which working with Gathman will teach the shooters who are striving to reach the marksman or sharpshooter level she and Culbertson are at.
   Eric Weil, 18, also travels to shoot for the Eagles. He has jumped from the J2 division, for those from 14-17, to the J1 group, for those his own age and 19. He is still a candidate for post-high school scholarships. Gathman said colleges such as Army and Kentucky have been in touch with Weil, but whether they have made scholarship offers he does't know.
   Part of that is due to the national championships known as JORC (for Junior Olympic Rifle Championships) taking place in March. That is a competition which shooters usually need to record scores of 580 or more out of 600 possible in the "three position" shooting to advance to.
   There is a state competition in most areas that serves as a preliminary and could supply another piece of defense in the Madras Rifle Association being able to call itself the virtual "shooting" capital of Oregon. There are a number of other clubs around the state, but none could beat the team the High Desert Eagles put up at team air rifle competition.
   Add in that the club will be hosting a competition on Jan. 19, 2002, and that at least Blakeslee, Culbertson and Weil figure to target national, and even international-level honors and the pride Gathman, Morgan and others show is understandable.
   There will be a banquet held March 2, 2002 at the M.J.R.A. building to raise funds for the activities of the club and potential trips to nationals for the best members. While also in some other clubs nearer their homes, Culbertson and Blakeslee both belong to the M.J.R.A. The $25 tickets the members will have to buy and sell will provide for chances at raffle prizes at the banquet.
   Keeping the club going, no matter what happens with his job situation or others is the main goal he has, said Gathman.
   "It's a good chance for kids to learn discipline and focus," Gathman noted of skills that can improve many of the participants' other study habits. There are times when he has had to ask the students why it is important to be quiet when he and other adults speak, but there is generally a lot of focus at the Wednesday and Saturday training sessions, he said of the students.
   Pushing to varied levels will serve as goals for each member. Medals or honors are given out as different score levels are reached so that Casey, who finished with 344, is not measured against Blakeslee's amazing 594 of 600, or the 588 and 582 of Culbertson and Weil.
   Clif Little, 10, was youngest and smallest of those shooting Saturday morning but scored a 484.
   Yet, first-time competitor DeHaan was only off to Little in the standing position. Scores DeHaan had in the prone and kneeling portions of the event helped overcome his trouble while standing.
   "They say "fall for show, stand for dough"," Lou Blakeslee, Sarah's father explained of the extra challenge standing will present to shooters. Their scores don't have to be as high, in relation to perfection, to earn sharpshooter or marksman status in standing only competitions.
   The High Desert Eagles intend to be standing tall when the results of upcoming competitions -- like their own in January as well as a state championship in small-bore (.22) shooting the next week in Salem -- are tabulated.