Five students lay flat on their stomachs in the high school’s cafeteria Tuesday afternoon, rifles in hand, preparing to shoot.
“Ready!” Sgt. Major Rod Wilday hollered.
“Aye, sir!” the boys yelled back before they began to shoot at their targets 10 feet away.
The five students are part of Amsterdam High School’s newly reformed Air Rifle Team.
The team is sponsored by the ROTC, which provided the school with about $20,000 worth of equipment to start, including rifles, mats, target boxes and Kevlar backdrops.
Amsterdam High School had an air rifle club when the ROTC program started there in 1999, but the program was later decommissioned. Under the high school’s new principal, David Ziskin, the program was allowed to begin again.
“Our new principal understands the importance of kids connecting with school in other ways besides academics,” said Wilday, who oversees the school’s ROTC program.
The cadets in the school’s ROTC program may not all be at the top ranks academically or athletically, but they are able to compete for their school through ROTC’s drill and rifle teams, Wilday said.
The ROTC program at Amsterdam High School is popular. There are currently 65 cadets enrolled.
According to Wilday, shooting is 85 percent mental. It takes focus, concentration, self-reliance, mental control and positive self-esteem, he said, all traits that also make a good student.
“Good shooters are good students, and good students are good shooters,” he said.
Wilday said he had a lot of interest in the rifle team, but there are a limited number of slots.
The Air Rifle Team consists of 15 students, male and female, who are grouped by skill into three five-person subteams for competitions: varsity, junior varsity and freshman.
Ezekiel Madia, 18, a junior, and Mike Cyrek, 16, a sophomore, are the team’s co-captains. Both said they frequently practice with air rifles and actual firearms at a range in Rotterdam. Both said shooting is a passion for them and they are grateful for the opportunity to practice in school.
Both also said their grades have improved as a result of their participation in ROTC and in the rifle team.
The school’s rifle team follows the guidelines set by the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which was chartered by Congress under the Clinton administration to promote gun safety and target shooting as a sport.
A match consists of three shooting rounds: Standing, kneeling and prone, where shooters lay on their stomachs. Shooters have a set time to shoot 10 targets, each of which yields up to 10 points.
Amsterdam’s team sends in their scores to the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which ranks the teams in the tournament.
Since this is the team’s first year, it is a growing and development year for most of the students, Wilday said. To be a good shooter mostly takes practice and the ability to perform the techniques perfectly and consistently, he said. Many of the students also work on their own to get better.
As the students started shooting Tuesday afternoon, they frequently adjusted their sights to improve their results.
“There isn’t a lot of coaching,” Wilday said. “Once they start shooting, if they are gumming it up, they have to figure it out for themselves.”
Superintendent Thomas Perillo said the district is not encouraging its students to play with guns. The team is closely monitored, and there is a heavy focus on safety.
The students spent a week learning about rifle safety procedures before they picked up a gun, Wilday said. Students took a test and had to sign a document saying they understood all of the safety procedures associated with the sport.
Wilday said some students quit the team because they realized it was more about discipline than just shooting things.
“I don’t know what they thought we were going to do,” he said. “Have gunfights, I guess.”
The rifles shoot small pellets, but “injury could result if you were on the dummy end of it,” Wilday said.
The rifles are kept in a locked case in Wilday’s office, and students are instructed not to touch them unless he is present. Once shooting begins, the cafeteria is locked with signs posted that let students know it is unsafe to enter.
William Bush, 15, a sophomore, said he has been shooting for a few years and said he frequently practices in his backyard. ROTC has changed his life, he said, and he intends to follow through with the program, hopefully earning a scholarship to college.
“I can’t say enough about this program,” Bush said. “It’s made me a better student, a better citizen and a better person.”
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