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Union Grove rifle team
wins state

 

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent 

  Another state championship banner will be hung at Union Grove High School this year.

 The Wolverines, under coach Warren Varnadoe, took home the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) title in the riflery championships held last month at Fort Benning. It was the third state championship for the team in six years.

Coach Warren Varnadoe stands with team members Abby Rigsby, Mitchell Miller, Austin Garvey and Annie Lunsford.            Special photo

  Out of a possible 1,200, the team’s score in the state final was 1,145 from four shooters – junior Mitchell Miller (294), senior Abby Rigsby (287), senior Annie Lunsford (283), and senior Austin Garvey (281). The alternate was freshman Heather Brown.

  All 14 teams in the finals scored 1,100 or higher. Each shooter takes ten shots from three different positions – standing, kneeling and prone. Each shot has a maximum value of 10 points.

  About 120 teams across the state compete in riflery through the GHSA, including five teams in Henry County – Eagle’s Landing High, Henry County High, Luella High, Stockbridge High, and Union Grove High.

  Instead of being split by classification and region as in most other GHSA sports, the riflery teams are divided into eight areas. Sixteen teams are in Area 5, which includes Henry, Spalding and Coweta counties in the south metro Atlanta area.

  “Area 5 is the toughest division in the state,” said Varnadoe. “Since 1994, it has produced 16 out of 20 state champions.”

  The regular season consists of a series of scheduled head-to-head matches, much like any other sport, followed by the area championships. From there, six teams advance to the first round of the state playoffs.

  Union Grove’s home matches, and those of many other schools, are now tallied using a computerized scoring system. The specially-sized target fits into a scanner, and the resulting scan is fed into a software program that reads the score with a great deal of accuracy, according to Varnadoe.

  “You take the human element out of it,” he said. “If a team scores well using that scoring program, no one argues with it. Some teams claim high scores that were done by hand, but then they get to state and with electronic scoring their scores go down. I’m always confident that if my shooters are scoring well here at home, they will score well anywhere.”

  All four of his shooters qualified during the regular season with scores of 290 or above, meaning they would have qualified for state as individuals even if the team had not advanced through the state playoffs.

  In the first round at state, the top six teams in each area are pitted against those from another area, and the top three of those 12 teams move on to the semifinals. The winning teams in the 12 semifinal matches, along with the next two highest-scoring teams, make up the 14 teams in the state finals.

  The Wolverines had no clear-cut top shooter this year, which fit in very nicely with Varnadoe’s team concept.

  “This year my shooters were up and down,” he said, “but I’ve always stressed to my team that it’s never about the individual. Because of this, they tend to pick each other up a bit.”

  The balance of the squad was a big factor at state. “Every team at state had good shooters, but some teams only had one or two good ones,” said Varnadoe. “I had four good shooters.”

  Union Grove finished second this year at the Navy JROTC nationals in Anniston, Alabama In the joint nationals they came in fifth, shooting against some Marine Corps and Army units that were “powerhouse teams.” as Varnadoe put it. Being in good physical condition is important for this sport, but in different ways than in other sports. “It is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,” said Varnadoe. “There are several things that go into a perfect shot. You have to have your breathing under control, so if you are a good athlete in good physical condition, you can control your breathing.”

  The coach doesn’t psyche up his team before a match like a football coach might – in face, just the opposite.

  “I have to calm them down,” he said, noting that Olympic shooters even have special psychological coaches and can get their heart rates so low that they can get off a shot between heartbeats.

  All riflery team members at Union Grove are members of the ROTC program, which owns the guns and buys the supplies for practice and competition. The season starts in August with tryouts and lasts until the middle of April. Serious shooters do not play other sports, Varnadoe said.

The precision rifles used by the team cost about $2,000 each, and the suits they wear can run up to $600. Through a decade or more of fundraising, the team has built up an armory of ten rifles and a wide variety of clothing sizes.

  In his quest to train five shooters each year, Varnadoe usually sees between 25 and 45 try out for the team. He has a JV team as well, although they don’t use the same equipment. All prospective team members are told up front that if they are not passing all of their classes, they will be pulled immediately and not allowed to practice until their grades improve.

  Varnadoe started the program when the school opened in the fall of 2000, and the Wolverines finished third in the state in 2003.

  The team won consecutive state championships in 2008 and 2009, picking up five national titles during that span as well. In 2008 they tied the record for most points in the state finals with 1160, and came close the next year at 1156.

  One member of that team is at the U.S. Naval Academy and will be captain of his riflery team as a senior this fall. Another is a female sniper and countersniper in the U.S. Air Force.

  Union Grove has not had a monopoly on riflery excellence in the county over the years. Luella won the state championship in 2010 and finished third in 2012. Henry County came in third in 2005 and posted second-place finishes in 2007 and 2009.

 

 

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