Prep Rifle: Northgate senior shooter hits target, earns scholarship to Air Force
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
Northgate's air rifle program — in just its fifth year — may not feel ready to compete in the Georgia High School Association.
But when that time comes, previous shooters like senior Mary Simonton will have helped paved the way.
The top eight shooters will move on to individual finals.
It's where Simonton ended last month's two-day Army/Air Force Service Championship while finishing second overall in the Precision class while firing a 1,164 out of a possible 1,200 and adding a 93.5 (out of 100) in the finals.
The effort came just after the Northgate senior became the second shooter in the program's short history to earn the attention of a Division I service academy by committing to Air Force.
"They set an email on Jan. 31, but I didn't see it for a couple of days because I hadn't been checking it," she said. "I made sure I called the office in front of my parents and made it official by saying, 'Yes I commit to the Air Force Academy. It was a great feeling."
Simonton joins Northgate High alumnus Zachary Wells among the program's standouts that have moved on to riflery programs in the service academy. Wells is a junior at West Point who qualified individually for the 2012 NCAA Championships after being one of the first to compete at his high school.
"I'm beyond excited," Simonton said about committing to Air Force and continuing to a ever-growing list of Northgate athletes who have competed at the Academy over the last decade. "Since my freshman year when I heard about the program, I said that's going to be my goal. Even after four years, looking back and saying back then 'Do I really want to do this?' ... yeah."
By the time she was about to enter Northgate High she had heard about the fledgling program, having participated in JROTC in middle school. After starting at the Sporter class — where no special equipment outside the rifle is needed — Simonton's commitment to the sport grew toward a desire to try the more disciplined Precision Air Rifle class.
It's a move not made lightly among a steep price both mentally and financially. While Sporter rifles cost a couple hundred dollars, gear at the Precision level — which includes a rifle, along with heavy shooting jackets and pants to deter movement prior to a shot — require an investment in the thousands.
"It's 90-percent mental," said Simonton of the sport, which is the only coed athletic competition among sports in the GHSA outside of cheerleading. "I like the fact that anybody can do it. There are no boundaries. It's challenging. Every shot needs to be exactly the same."
Simonton's parents, however, went a step further by creating a basement range for their daughter as her practice time grew from a couple multi-hour sessions a week in addition to early morning sessions at school.
"My parents have been so supportive," said a refined Simonton. "I never thought I would fail."
She also credits Olympic shooter Jayme Shipley, a member of Team USA's 1996 and 2000 lineups, for providing additional guidance. Shipley has recently held clinics at both schools for air rifle and sporter shooters.
"Time and effort are the only difference in competition," said Simonton, who has also competed in 3-position Smallbore offered at the NCAA level. "It's been a huge commitment."
While Northgate and East Coweta compete separately at respective service championships (ECHS with Marine Corps), shooters from both schools have combined their efforts to win championships.
Simonton and ECHS sophomore Glen Lauzon were part of a team victory at the Gary Anderson Invitational in December that included competition in both Anniston and Camp Perry, Ohio that included a $500 prize.
The team also included Monroe Area freshman Mary Pratt, who was the only shooter that finished ahead of Simonton at last month's Army/Air Force Service Championships. Pratt also had the top average score in the GHSA's Area 5 division, which also includes East Coweta.
As for the GHSA, Simonton sees Northgate High one day competing for potential titles in one of the most competitive states for high school air rifle in the nation.
"It's only been five years," she said. "It's never bothered me that much. I think it will happen eventually when the time is right."