Junior Shooting Sports keeps producing winners

By Tim Engstrom
Megan Jaros, a senior at Mounds View High School, is among the best high school shooters in the nation and almost won the 2023 American Legion 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship. She is headed to the University of Memphis this fall. She competes for the Anoka Post 102 team, called Minnesota Centershots.

One sharp shooter

ANOKA — Megan Jaros has been in youth shooting for five years. Her father had been looking for an activity for her.

“None of the other sports were really sticking,” she said.

The air rifle clicked — pun intended just a little  — for the Mounds View High School senior. She is a member of the Minnesota Centershots, the American Legion Junior Shooting Sports team for Anoka Post 102.

Within a year and a half, she moved up from sporter class to precision class, which calls for more gear. At first, she borrowed a shooting suit, then had a custom one made two years ago.

Olive Meinen, who competes in the precision class for Anoka Post 102’s Minnesota Centershots, sports cheek shamrocks and green eyeshadow at the 2024 CMP 3PAR State Championship at Anoka Post 102 on March 16. After all, it was St. Patrick’s Day weekend. She placed second with a score of 567.

She was leading at the American Legion 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship in Colorado Springs through three matches last summer, but she struggled in the fourth match ending up in fifth place. She placed first in kneeling.

Jaros will have a two-thirds scholarship at the University of Memphis this fall. Getting involved in Junior Shooting Sports has yielded benefits.

“I am excited because it’s not just the scholarship. It’s the access to tutors and having more structure,” she said.

The American Legion 3-Position Air Rifle National Championship takes place in July in Colorado Springs for team and individual competitors. To get there, they must win state tournaments, then win long-distance competitions called postal matches. American Legion National HQ runs it.

Many of the competitors are destined to compete at the collegiate level and receive scholarships.

Like with American Legion Baseball, teams are set up differently in various places. Some youth shooting teams are separate nonprofit organizations with partial funding from the post. Some might be 4-H affiliated, with partial post funding. Some might be entirely tied the post. In some places, they are varsity high school teams, usually private schools.

According to the American Legion Headquarters in Indianapolis, there are five teams in Minnesota registered for the Legion’s national tournament this year. Anoka Post 102 has two teams. The others are Redwood Falls Post 38, Pipestone Post 6 and Minneapolis-Richfield Post 435.

Post 102’s Junior Shooting Sports crew is called the Minnesota Centershots. Post 435’s team goes by X-Men. Post 6 is Pipestone County 4-H. Post 38 is registered as “38 4-H.”

Ten competitors lie in the prone position in the basement of Anoka Post 102 on March 16 and aim at targets across the room. Match officials and parents use binoculars to see how the kids are shooting. The three-position matches also call for kneeling and standing positions.

There are American Legion teams not participating in the national tournament. Forest City Post 225 is called “Gopher” because it is tied in with the local Gopher Rifle & Revolver Club. Houston Post 423 has the Houston Hurricanes. St. Thomas Academy has a youth-shooting team that isn’t Legion-connected.

They all compete under rules set by the CMP — a national shooting organization with a focus on safe youth shooting called Civilian Marksmanship Program.

The program traces its roots to an age when the federal government encouraged rifle marksmanship among youth as part of national defense. It was originally called the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, or NBPRP, signed into existence by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. By 1907, national matches were held at Camp Perry, Ohio, though funding shortfalls sometimes led to cancellations.

In 1918, Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his time as assistant secretary of the Navy, was chairman of the NBPRP. By the Cold War, the program fell under the Department of the Army. In the 1960s, Army leaders concluded recruits could be taught adequately without civilian programs, and with some in Congress willing to defund gun-related programs, NBPRP struggled. In 1996, Congress spun it off as a federally chartered nonprofit called CMP.

The legislation stated, “In carrying out the Civilian Marksmanship Program, the corporation shall give priority to activities that benefit firearms safety, training and competition for youth and that reach as many youth participants as possible.”

Visit its website “thecmp.org,” and you find American Legion registration fairly swiftly under “youth.”

Typically, photos of teams at competitions show them shooting indoors because they are firing air rifles that shoot the standard .177 pellet at tiny targets on the other side of the room. A common brand name is the Crossman Challenger. That said, teams at times compete outdoors in smallbore competitions, too.

Bill Buesseler is the head coach for the Centershots, and at the 2024 CMP 3PAR State Championship at Anoka Post 102 on March 16, he served as match director. There were 40 kids competing.

Centershots teammate Sarah Karger inspects the chamber of her rifle.

Buesseler said there are two classes in youth shooting: sporter and precision.

The sporter class competes with just the rifle, normal clothing and no accessories. The precision class shooters wear a canvas and leather uniform and special accessories such as butt plates, weights and cheek pieces.

Precision class is what TV viewers see when they watch the Olympics.

A three-position air rifle (aka 3PAR) match is 60 shots, 20 from each position, with each shot right in the center worth 10 points, Buesseler said. The three positions are kneeling, prone and standing.

“Once a kid is achieving above a 450 score, we move them up to precision class,” he said.

He said the Minnesota Centershots receive great support from Anoka Post 102, through its charitable gambling program, along with fundraisers and grants from Midway USA Foundation. Selling gear is one way to raise funds. A tan Minnesota Centershots/Anoka Post 102 T-shirt is $12. A knife-and-flashlight kit is $25.

“We really try to support new families and new shooters when they come into the club,” Buesseler said.

Match fees are low, he said. The one in Anoka on March 16 was $25. The prior tournament the Centershots were in was $6. Some are free.

St. Thomas Academy won the sporter class team competition on March 16, followed by X-Men in second place. The champion of the sporter individuals was William Sellner of St. Thomas Academy, with a 517 score.

Coaches and parents can see the targets during the competition thanks to binoculars.

Jaros was the champ of the precision class among individuals. Her score was 591. The Centershots dominated the precision class team competition that day, with the Gophers in second place.

Jaros made it to the American Legion 3PAR National Championship in Colorado last year. Allison Buesseler went two years ago for the Centershots (and she hails from Forest Lake), and she is a junior at the University of Kentucky on the varsity shooting team.

Gavin Barnick of the Centershots made it three years ago, and now he competes for the University of West Virginia. In his first two years of eligibility, he competed for Alaska-Fairbanks and he guided them to an NCAA National Championship.

Just last month, the TCU Horned Frogs won the 2024 NCAA title, with West Virginia placing second, Alaska-Fairbanks third and Kentucky fourth. Garnick was the individual champ for air rifle.

Buesseler said posts can launch teams of their own by checking to see if any air rifle teams exist in their area, then asking if they want to participate in American Legion Junior Shooting Sports, too. Register teams at legion.org/shooting. Find more information at thecmp.org/youth/american-legion/.

“With the Summer Olympics coming up, it’s cool to get the kids jazzed up for it right now,” he said.

The Minnesota Centershots gather for a team photo March 16 at Anoka Post 102. Back row from left are Elsa Eugster (P), Parker Barth (P), Ireland Christianson, Avery Lee, Olivia Lee, Lucas Russell and Megan Jaros (P). Front row from left are Sarah Karger, Anders Meinen, Gabriel Kocak and Olive Meinen (P). The four marked with a P compete in precision class. The rest compete in sporter class.