WALLA WALLA — The gleaming rifle range tucked away in the gymnasium at Walla Walla High School is an homage to shooting.
The spotless whitewashed walls and the row of illuminated electronic targets lining the far wall give it the air of a laboratory, and one might think they had entered a science classroom, were it not for the game trophies hanging on the wall.
Lasseigne not quite done with prep career
By BEN WENTZ
of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
WALLA WALLA — Just because it’s closer to September than June, when Cadet Captain Caitlyn Lasseigne graduated from Walla Walla High School, doesn’t mean she is done with her prep shooting career.
Lasseigne, the Wa-Hi rifle team captain who recently led the Blue Devils to its first national title in almost 85 years, will depart soon for the American Legion’s Junior 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship in Colorado Springs, Colo., that runs Tuesday through Sunday.
The competition pits the top 15 shooters from both precision and sporter classes out of more than 1,500 shooters that competed in regional qualifiers.
The top shooter in each category stands to earn $2,500 for college tuition.
Lasseigne, who only began shooting in her sophomore year at Wa-Hi, hopes to transfer her success at the high school level to a college shooting career.
She will be attending Walla Walla Community College in the fall, parttime to preserve her NCAA eligibility, and has had interest from multiple college coaches.
In preparation for her upcoming match, Lasseigne has been practicing anywhere from four to eight hours every day.
After the Colorado match, Lasseigne said she will begin shooting .22 caliber rifles to help prepare for college shooting and that she will volunteer with the Wa-Hi rifle team over the next school year.
About the only thing that interrupts the 2001: A Space Odyssey aura — aside from the trophies of the antlered variety — are a trio of trophies from the early 20th century, including a national title trophy earned in 1928.
These glorious trophies, reminiscent of a time before plastics and tightened spending, with proud bald eagles soaring over crossed rifles, display the shooters’ achievements for all to see.
The national title trophy, alongside a regional championship trophy from the following year and another trophy from the next, stands in stark contrast to the gleaming silver of the later trophies — its metal blackened as the result of a misbegotten attempt to shine it up — and in contrast to the ultramodern, flat-screen festooned monument to the current decade that is the remainder of the range.
Back then, the antecedents of today’s shooters traveled by way of train some 2,000 miles to shoot .22 caliber rifles and win the All-Service Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) National Title in Chicago.
Another giveaway that the trophies are from a different era? They were sponsored by William Randolph Hearst, the media titan that helped turn newspapers into big business.
Shooting coach and Ret. Sgt. 1st Class Mark Mebes taught his 80 JROTC students of that team’s successes this past school year, and next year he plans to add their exploits to the official curriculum for his shooting-focused Military Science class at Wa-Hi.
For 85 years, those shooters’ achievements stood unequaled among Wa-Hi shooters. Instructors and students came and left.
Wars were won and lost.
Great generations came and went.
But those trophies stood for what Wa-Hi’s shooting program once was.
This year’s top shooters, Allison Juergensen, Caitlyn Lasseigne, Andrew Jenkins and Sarah Jameson, didn’t win a massive trophy — in fact, they didn’t win trophies at all, instead receiving medals in the Olympic fashion — but they firmly plunked Wa-Hi back atop the air rifle shooting world this past July when they won the Junior Olympic Three Position Air Rifle National Title match held in Anniston, Ala.
The science of shooting
The story of this season’s national title begins in 2011, Mebes first season coaching the team after he stepped in for longtime coach Ret. Master Sgt. Gerald Taylor midway through the year.
They only made the Army JROTC Nationals that year when another team ahead of them dropped out, and the Blue Devil Battalion finished dead last at the match.
Things have obviously changed since then.
Taylor, who had coached several individual national champions but never had a team win a title, saw the current group’s potential for greatness coming. But he also recognized that Wa-Hi’s facilities needed updating, and recognized that new, younger coach was needed to guide the transition to a modern range.
Soon-to-be College Place High School’s new principal, Kirk Jameson, then the director of Walla Walla Public Schools’ Career and Technology Education program, also saw the potential and the need for upgrades.
James, himself a competitive three-gun shooter (pistol, rifle, shotgun) and father to current Blue Devil shooter Sarah Jameson, helped arrange more than $100,000 for the project from the federally funded CTE program.
Enter Mebes, a former Army Ranger who had spent the past 11 years as the National Guard’s recruiter in Walla Walla.
Almost immediately after the shooting season ended, Mebes and the rifle team gutted Wa-Hi’s rifle range. The range hadn’t been completely updated since it was built along with the high school in 1964. Almost 50 years of dust and crud was pulled out of the range and it was rebuilt to meet modern standards and building codes.
The renovation was exhaustive — new gun safes, new lockers, new targets, new desks, updated electrical wiring, etc. — as well as expensive.
But the crown jewel of the update was the line of 10 glowing targets that currently sit across from the classroom portion of the range. They are the definition of high-tech, analyzing the sound of the air rifle pellets as they strike a strip of paper to determine shot placement and scoring. That information is immediately sent to each shooter via small monitors and the instructor or scorer via a computer.
It gives the shooters instant feedback to make adjustments — no more squinting to see shot placement — and lets a single coach monitor all 10 shooters at once. And it’s the same type of target system used at large matches, giving the Wa-Hi cadets the chance to practice like they perform.
Those targets represent a huge commitment to the shooting program by the school district, as at roughly $63,000 for the equipment and installation, they made up the majority of the cost of the overall renovation.
Along with the renovation came new precision rifles.
JROTC rifle shooting teams are divided into two classes: sporters and precision.
Sporter rifles are not unlike the pellet guns you might give to a child, except they are powered by a removable CO2 canister.
Precision rifles are an entirely different beast.
At just over $3,000 per rifle, these rifles are completely customizable to the shooter and built to the very best standards, allowing shooters to make extremely, well, precise shots.
Where an average target shooting rifle will have a trigger weight (the pressure it takes to pull the trigger) of 2 pounds, precision air rifles take just ounces to fire. The trigger pull is so light that accidental discharges aren’t uncommon for shooters going from sporter rifles to precision as it takes just the slightest touch to set one off.
But just as important as those targets and rifles, half of the range was transformed into a classroom, giving Mebes his own laboratory aside from the main JROTC classroom where he teaches the fundamentals of shooting along with the basic JROTC curriculum.
Students usually spend half the class shooting, and the other half learning about shooting, be it different techniques to squeeze off the perfect offhand (standing) shot, or the psychology behind performing under pressure.
Demand for Mebes’ classes has grown to an all-time high, with about 180 students applying for the 80 available slots, JROTC instructor Ret. Lt. Col. Bill Bialozor said.
And this year the program is growing, with Mebes adding a college-level advanced shooting class to the four basic periods he currently teaches.
From those 80 shooters, just the top eight make the precision rifle team.
The mental game
The first thing Mebes evaluates when considering shooters for his precision rifle team isn’t their ability to keep a crosshair on a bull’s-eye or the smoothness of their trigger pull.
The first thing Mebes looks at is their math scores.
At 2 ½ to 3 hours in length, and requiring a shooter’s complete attention from start to finish, Mebes likens an average shooting match to an extremely long math test.
“You can get someone who’s a fantastically talented shooter,” Mebes said, “but if they don’t have the concentration level to concentrate for two and a half hours on everything they need too, their scores just drop and it doesn’t look like they shot a good match, even though at the beginning of the match they shot great.
“You really need mental and emotional stamina to get through two and half hours of shooting.”
Despite all of the intricacies of putting a pellet on a target less than a millimeter across from 10 meters away — where to put your elbow, making sure your sights are aligned, breath and trigger control — the sport of precision rifle shooting is mostly a mental game.
Many shooters can hit the bull’s-eye, but it’s the ability to do that not just once or 10 times, but 60, and from three different positions (prone, kneeling and standing), that distinguish exceptional shooters from good shooters.
That’s where shooting journals come in.
Mebes first learned about journaling when he attended an NRA coaching clinic shortly after being hired, but things didn’t truly click for his shooting teams until this year.
“The first year, it was like pulling teeth,” Mebes said of getting his students to keep journals. “To where last year, I said, ‘You know what, this is going to be a graded assignment. Everybody keeps a shooting journal, and it’s going to be graded.’ And when I made it mandatory, and when they had to start doing it, eventually they started realizing.”
But the turning point for the Blue Devils came this past winter after placing second at the Army JROTC championships in Salt Lake City.
Wa-Hi had won the same competition in 2012 and placed fifth at the all-service championships that year, but something was missing. They were plateauing, placing second in the Army championships and third at the all-service championships, also held in Anniston, this season — no small feats, to be sure, but they wanted and expected more.
It hit Lasseigne, the precision team captain, on the ride back from Salt Lake City.
Mebes: “We were on a long, quiet ride back from Salt Lake City and the whole time Caitlyn’s sitting there in the front seat next to me, scratching out notes, making a training plan because she knows we’re going to the all-service match in Anniston in a month.”
“She goes, it’s more than 70 percent (mental) isn’t it? I said, ‘Yeah, it’s more like 90. And she said, ‘Oh!’ It was like she got it, and when she got it, the rest of the team got it,” Mebes said. “January is when they really went to work on their mental game. The journaling got better. All of the buy-in got better after that Salt Lake City match. Because the team that beat us, shouldn’t have beat us, and they knew it was mental.
“They realized that everything physically we were doing was what they had been counting on to win matches,” he continued. “They weren’t totally invested in that mental game. This winter is when they got invested in that mental game.”
Lasseigne’s shooting journal bears out that commitment.
Pages upon pages are filled with notes on a variety of different things. From self talk like, “I will shoot 10s” to detailed notes on different shooting ranges, such as how the tiles line up just so at a particular range.
“If you have a bad day you can go back and look at what you could improve on, or if you had a really good day, you could look back and repeat it,” Lasseigne, know as Lasagna to her friends, said. “You could learn how to replicate it.”
The team’s only senior, Lasseigne is an extensive note taker. She took up a full page of her journal on just a travel day, and averages almost four full pages of notes on a competition day.
She also helped come up with a series of rules, or commandments as Mebes calls them, about what the team is allowed to do pre-match.
“They absolutely refuse to talk about a score before a match,” Mebes said. “They won’t talk about numbers — they won’t even say numbers. That’s forbidden talk. They won’t talk about winning, they won’t talk about beating another team, they won’t talk about another team outshooting them, they won’t talk about another team outshooting them, they won’t talk about a bad match they had before.
“They limit themselves completely to positive talk. They will not even say the word ‘nine’ when they’re shooting. If it’s not 10, they’ll either not talk about it, they’ll talk to me in private, or they’ll call it a non-10. They will not say the word nine, because if you get that word nine into your head, it’s weird to watch, but they will start shooting nines.”
The other factor to this team’s success has been sheer repetition. Outside of the hour-plus they spent learning and shooting Mebes’ class, the precision shooters spent on average 2 1/2 hours each day after school practicing, four days a week.
During the summer that stretched out sometimes as long as four hours. And sandwiched in between all that practice, the team competed in the numerous matches required to get to the big meets in the first place.
By July, Jameson, Juergensen, Jenkins and Lasseigne had already been to Army nationals, all-service nationals, the Army regionals in New Mexico, and the Junior Olympic state qualifier.
Not to mention the individual postals (matches sent and scored by post) and matches held with local JROTC competitors.
When the team got to Anniston for the second time this season for the Junior Olympics, all of that preparation — both mental and physical paid off.
“What you’re trying to achieve is just the right amount of stress,” Mebes said. “You want to find just that right level of focus, and, honestly, I think that’s what happened at this Junior Olympic match. They came in, they looked around, they saw all these teams — some of these teams they’d only heard of before, some of these shooters they’ve only seen in magazines before, and it brought the stress level up, but because of the success of this year, they weren’t overwhelmed by it.
“They all came out of the match and said the same thing: it was just the right level of stress.”
The shooters emerged from the pressure-cooker of a week with a national title in tow and several more medals to add to their ever-growing collection.
The Junior Olympics feature some of the best shooters in the country. These teams are not limited to JROTC programs, and often times had 40 to 60 precision shooters competing for eight spots, Mebes said.
In addition to the stiff competition, there’s the added stress of being under the proverbial microscope, as college rifle team coaches from around the country (but mostly the south, where rifle shooting teams are more popular) descended on the meet to observe possible recruits.
Nevertheless, the Wa-Hi rifle team went about their preparations more like monks than high school age students.
“Before a match, it’s like watching a Ranger team go into planning mode,” Mebes, himself a former infantryman, said.
Amid all that stress, the Blue Devils scored 2330 out of a possible 2400 points, meaning that over the weeklong match they hit bull’s-eye more than 97 percent of the time.
And they still only beat last year’s national champions, Sutter Union High School (Calif.) by a grand total of three points.
And Jameson, a Cadet Staff Sergeant who will be a senior this year, set a new national record from the offhand position, scoring 97-of-100 possible points in one round while leading the team with a score of 591 out of 600 for the tournament.
And so now, when new students enter Mebes’ classroom they will still see the great, almost foreboding trophies lording over the meeker prizes from a more understated era.
But when they look at the cover of the three-inch thick curriculum Mebes has prepared, they will see the faces of 2012-13’s national championship foursome: Andrew Jenkins, Caitlyn Lasseigne, Allison Juergensen and Sarah Jameson.