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Harpeth Hall rifle team wins a pair of national championships

By MC Claverie '20

Harpeth Hall Communications Intern 

Dressed in a black and tan full-body canvas suit, Isabella Baldwin ’23 loaded a smooth, silver pellet into her competition rifle. As she prepared to take her final shot in the kneeling position, she inhaled and exhaled evenly, not letting the nerves of the National 3PAR Junior Olympic Championship match distract her.

As the pellet fired down range, spectators, coaches, and other competitors held their breath — would the shot be a 10? Would she set a new school record?

For the Harpeth Hall rifle team, the intense moment served as the culmination of a thrilling 2021-2022 season. The squad not only claimed the 2022 Tennessee state championship by defeating rival team Montgomery Bell Academy, but it also qualified for both the 2022 National 3PAR Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) Championship and the 2022 National Rifle Junior Olympic Championships, the latter which concluded with Isabella, steady and unruffled, sending her final pellet rifling toward the target. 

“Literally a crowd gathered behind her to watch her finish, I think we were more nervous than she was,” Harpeth Hall rifle teammate Scout Dahir said. “She was so calm, just focusing, and everyone else was like, ‘Ah, is she gonna do it?’”

For the Harpeth Hall squad, confidence was the theme of the season — even when some questioned what an all-girls rifle team could accomplish.

Coed Competition

Riflery is the only Harpeth Hall sport that competes in coed competitions, meaning that matches are not separated by gender. While that doesn’t faze Harpeth Hall’s shooters, they have found that, occasionally, some male competitors do not always take the “girls team” seriously in coed matches. Or, at least, not at first.

One example came early last season when Nashville’s all-boys school Montgomery Bell Academy competed in its annual match against St. Louis University High School (SLUH), an all-boys school in Missouri. The match was intense as each team approached it with the concentration of a serious competition. However, when Harpeth Hall later invited the SLUH team to a competition, Harpeth Hall co-captain Gabby Welhoelter ’22 said that the SLUH athletes said that the match against the girls was “just for fun,” and they did not take the Harpeth Hall team seriously.

Ultimately, the Harpeth Hall team not only crushed the MBA score, but the SLUH score as well.

“They were walking around beforehand and saying, ‘Oh, we're just treating this as practice,’” Gabby said, “and then we smoked them completely and smoked the MBA score, too. It just felt satisfying.”

The victories set the tone for a successful season, leading Harpeth Hall to claim the 2022 state championship, marking the school’s third state riflery title following wins in 2015 and 2017. Alongside the team state championship title, Isabella won her second individual state championship title and co-captain Kate Stewart ’22 won the individual silver medal.

The team’s successes did not stop at winning a state title. The Honeybear Rifles set new school and state records, qualified two individual athletes for the USA Shooting Junior Olympics, and qualified and shot in the CMP regional championship match in Anniston, Ala.

And then came nationals.

On the mark at nationals

In mid-July, Harpeth Hall’s squad of shooters stepped onto the national rifle stage in Camp Perry, Ohio, a United States National Guard training facility and active military base on the shore of Lake Erie.

Kate, Isabella, Scout, and Laura Marie Jeansonne ’22, qualified to compete in two back-to-back nationals matches. Gabby also traveled with the four-person squad as an alternate.

“Camp Perry is a legendary spot on this planet in the shooting communities, it's almost considered hallowed ground because they've been shooting there for so long,” Assistant Rifle Coach Mike Carter said. “Some of the greatest shooting stories in our country have occurred at Camp Perry.”

The squad competed in both the CMP and the Junior Olympics national championship three position air rifle (3PAR) matches, both which were a 60-shot course of fire in the prone, standing, and kneeling positions.

Facing off against scholastic teams representing their schools and all-star club travel teams composed of shooters from various organizations, in their first match, the National 3PAR CMP Championship, the Harpeth Hall squad shot a total score of 2299.

While it wasn’t the high mark the team aimed for, leaving the team a little disappointed, it was all the Bears needed.  Harpeth Hall placed first among the seven high school teams, winning the CMP national scholastic title and placing them 23rd overall among the 40 all-star travel teams.

“I did not expect us to win the first day at all and then one of the coaches was like, ‘Oh, you guys won,’ and my reaction was just like, ‘What? No, that's impossible,’” Scout said. 

After winning 2022 National 3PAR CMP High School Scholastics Team Precision Class match, Head Coach Jim Abernathy said the squad spent the rest of the afternoon riding roller coasters at Cedar Point Amusement Park, which helped the squad get its minds in the right space for the match the next day. 

Early in the morning on July 15, the squad shot the National 3PAR Junior Olympic Championship match. The team not only set a new school record of 2330 147x, but also Isabella set new school and personal records. As she began her last 20 shots in the kneeling position with a crowd gathered around her, she steadily fired, hitting 10 after 10 as everyone but her held their breath.

After completing her course of fire, the entire range erupted in applause for Isabella and her score was announced over the speaker. She shot a score of 599 53x. A score of 599 is an almost perfect score in riflery, meaning that out of 60 shots, only one of Isabella’s shots wasn’t a 10.

With the results, she smashed her own personal and school record and placed third individually nationally.

“Of course she did,” Scout said, “because she is amazing.”

For the second time in two days, the squad had come in first among seven scholastic teams and 12th out of 40 all-star travel teams, winning the 2022 National 3PAR Junior Olympics Championship High School Scholastics Team Precision Class match.

“I was absolutely overwhelmed, it probably took me a couple of days for it to sink in,” Mr. Abernathy said. “It was such an emotional roller coaster we had had. The day one wasn't what I thought our potential could be, and then you see Isabella tie a national record, followed up by the team effort of a new school record and just a monster score, it was just unbelievable. It still hasn’t really registered.”

Mr. Carter expressed similar sentiments and said that he felt immense pride for the team because their nationals win was a culmination of the season’s hard work.

For graduated seniors, Kate, Scout, Laura Marie, and Gabby, nationals was bittersweet because it was their last rifle match, but a great way to end their rifle careers.

“It was kind of sad, because it was our last ever time shooting and so it was kind of melancholic, but also a celebration,” Kate said.

As they prepare for the 2022-2023 season, Mr. Abernathy said the team will continue to build up new and current athletes alike as they look toward a strong season.

“We're going to have quite a bit of new athletes either coming to the team or growing in from sport into precision or precision just improving their scores, so it's kind of a rebuild a little bit,” Mr. Abernathy said. “I'm looking for a strong season, but it's kind of a reset. We don't base a season on one match or even a national match, we just reload and go again.”