The Columbia County 4-H shotgun team had top finishes of fourth by one of its senior squads and fifth by its top junior group at the state competition this month at Rock Eagle.
Any other county might consider those to be extraordinary, considering that 850 shooters from 63 counties competed.
In Columbia County, the feeling was that while the shooters' performance was a notable achievement, the team did not fare quite as well as its members thought it should, said lead coordinator Lori Patterson.
That shows just how far the team has come since its inception in 2000. Columbia County had the top team in the state two years ago and the second-best team in the state last year.
Keith Howard started the team with about 12 children, including his son, Ben. Howard's uncle, Randy Fagler, was influential in the process after being a big part of a successful program in Emanuel County.
The Columbia County team now features nearly 90 shooters. They practice Thursdays at the Columbia County Landfill. The season typically lasts from about mid-February through May.
"The thing is, next year it will be bigger," Patterson said. "We're probably going to have to put a cap on it, because we can't deal with many more 4-Hers."
The vast increase has produced results in competitions. Patterson said 63 individuals from the team shot well enough at April's district event in Bulloch County to qualify for the state competition, where each individual shooting team is made up of seven shooters.
A county can have many individual shooting teams competing.
At district, Jason Yergin was the high individual senior, and Cody Storey was the high individual junior. Seniors Yergin, Cody Knox, Devan Yawn, Marc Link, Will Oellerich and Corey Rosamond shot perfect scores of 25. In juniors, Storey, Dakota Banford, Chad Johnson and Nolan Johnson also shot perfect scores.
At state, Columbia County's top junior squad achieved that fifth-place finish. In addition, its senior teams notched finishes of fourth, sixth and seventh places.
The top local individual was Hunter Hyatt, who was the fourth-place individual in the junior division despite being in his first year of shooting.
The Columbia County team is made up mostly of boys, but featured eight girls this past season. Howard believes the program -- 4-H's Shooting Awareness, Fun and Education (S.A.F.E.) -- provides a unique opportunity for youths.
"It's great seeing some of these kids not being involved in other sports excel," said Howard, whose daughter, Allie, competed with the team before graduating last year. "Some of them haven't handled a gun before. We teach them the proper way, the proper stance.
"If they hang with it for two or three years, they can become good marksmen, good sportsmen."
The program is chartered through 4-H. Participants pay an enrollment fee each year of about $135, which covers all of their shooting expenses throughout the season. Patterson said that the community has been very supportive, offering scholarships to several shooters who would be unable to compete without financial assistance.
Patterson appreciates the positive effect the program has on its participants.
"These kids are just unbelievable," she said. "They're wonderful teammates. They're very supportive, the most polite, respectful bunch of youth that I've ever met."
Patterson said that many of the coaches stay on with the program even after their children complete it. She said she will probably do the same once her son, rising senior Jesse, finishes up next year.
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