Hayley Carroll was in standing position, one eye closed and the other focused on the target 33 feet ahead. With the air rifle balanced by her left hand and pressing against her cheek, she moved her index finger over the trigger.

When she pulled it, there was no whiplash. No smoke and no blast. The sound more closely resembled a pen click than a gunshot, and to the untrained eye, it wasn’t clear where or whether the pellet pierced the paper.

But it didn’t take the binoculars provided by the onlooking coach to know that she hit the bull’s-eye. Carroll, all 5 feet 2 of her, is almost always on target. And on the occasions she did miss during a late December winter break practice at the indoor air rifle range at the Arlington Fairfax Chapter of the IZAAK Walton League, it wasn’t by much.

Carroll, a senior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, is an atypical athlete in an atypical co-ed varsity sport. With 40-plus members, Robinson is the largest and most successful of the 11 teams competing in the Potomac High School Rifle League (PHSRL). Though considered a varsity team, Robinson functions as a club. It doesn’t receive money from the school. Its coaching staff consists of volunteers and equipment is paid for by parents.

Amid challenges both practical and of perception, the niche sport has changed to account for financial and political pressures. But as the national gun debate continues , local high school riflery participation remains as robust as it was 20 years ago. For these athletes, shooting is not political — it’s an enduring outlet for competition and individualism that attracts students uninterested or unable to play for traditional high school athletic teams.

Christopher Egerstrom, center standing, aims before shooting his air rifle during Robinson High School's rifle team practice at the Izaak Walton League shooting range in Centreville. Robinson has won 19 of the past 26 PHSRL region titles. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
‘A sport for anyone’

The story of how Carroll became involved is a familiar one among competitive high school shooters. Through middle school she had tried other activities — ballet, karate, even baseball — but wasn’t drawn to any of them. Still, she wanted to be involved in something. And after attending an interest meeting in ninth grade, she realized that something was riflery.

Carroll didn’t look like a shooter. Not then as a rookie freshman and not even now as a Division I recruit, dressed head to toe in rifle gear.

“She’s built like a stick,” said Bob Hardy, a longtime coach at Robinson, “and the first time she came to air rifle practice at IZAAK Walton I said, ‘That ain’t gonna work.’ ”

Hardy was wrong. Carroll was a natural, and when it became apparent she would stick with the sport, her parents bit the bullet; they bought an air rifle, then a small-bore rifle and all the other clothing, equipment and accessories required to shoot competitively. Her mother, Victoria Carroll, said they have paid about $7,500. That doesn’t include travel expenses, of which Carroll has accumulated plenty through her various national competitions.

Robinson is one of the 2,000-plus high school teams (including JROTC programs) enrolled in the Civilian Marksmanship Program, according to the CMP website. While JROTC teams exist all over the D.C. area, there are only a handful of high school club and varsity teams.

Other Fairfax County PHSRL members include W.T. Woodson, Lake Braddock, West Potomac and West Springfield. Arlington County, which allocates stipends for coaches, has three varsity teams in the PHSRL: Washington-Lee, Yorktown and a newly launched team at Wakefield. They practice together and share coaching staffs and equipment. Equipment and practice fees are paid for by the teams, according to Jennifer Harris, director of communications for Arlington Public Schools.

St. John’s (D.C.) and Landon (Bethesda) have their own indoor ranges and are the PHSRL’s lone private school teams, while the Mavericks consist of shooters from high schools without rifle programs.

Robinson has dominated the league, winning PHSRL region titles in 19 of the past 26 years. The team regularly sends its top shooters to Division I programs; this year’s team has a few NCAA prospects, including Carroll; Nicholas Kanellis, who plans to attend a service academy; and Zach Eisenberg, a lacrosse player-turned marksman who is considering North Carolina State.

“It takes a lot of concentration and patience,” Eisenberg said. “Really it’s a sport for anyone. As long as you have eyes, you can shoot.”

(N.C. State has three Robinson alumni, freshman Claire Spina, sophomore Caitlyn Ford and junior Lucas Kozeniesky. They will be joined next season by Sarah Hickey, a Northwood senior from Silver Spring who competes with the Antietam Junior Rifle Club.)

As successful as Robinson riflery has been, it doesn’t get the same attention as other varsity teams. That the school even had a team came as a surprise to Victoria Carroll.

“We had no idea that it even existed to be honest with you,” she said.

But she’s grateful it did, she said. Competing with Robinson and having the responsibility of handling a rifle helped Hayley become more organized and more independent; she turned over a new leaf academically, Victoria said.

“She found something she was passionate about, and it changed her life in many ways,” Victoria said.

That’s a sentiment shared by Carroll, who shoots twice a week with her team and several more times on her own. She doesn’t plan on breaking that habit any time soon. She has her sights set on a few Division I schools, including Nebraska.

At Robinson she gets weird questions from classmates, such as the time someone asked whether she shot animals and clay pigeons. But she embraces the rifle reputation. The sport has shaped her identity and become an integral part of her high school life.

“It’s almost like an extension of my arm,” Carroll said.

Former Robinson rifle team member Claire Spina takes a pellet from her case before loading her air rifle during a late December Robinson practice. By shifting to air rifles from small-bore rifles, the league has been able to stay afloat. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Junior Jason Katz, left, and senior Keegan Miller, second from left, discuss their targets with coaches Jim Miller, third from left, and Dan Curry during a recent Robinson practice at the Izaak Walton League shooting range. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
A change of instruments

The Potomac High School Rifle League has been around for as long as Hardy, 81, can remember. Schools come in and out, participation waxes and wanes, rules have been adjusted and even the name has changed; it used to be the Northern Virginia High School League. But the sport and the friendly, competitive culture have for the most part remained the same, Hardy said.

Since joining Robinson’s coaching staff in 1981, Hardy said there haven’t been any safety issues. Several coaches are on hand during each practice, rarely turning their eyes away from the 25-lane range. Multiple precautions are taken to ensure there’s no opportunity for a mishap. Guns are stored in hard cases, unloaded and in safety mode; an arrow on the case indicates the barrel's direction, so that when it’s opened, the rifle is pointed toward the range.

“This rifle becomes simply a device, like a tennis racket or a lacrosse stick,” Hardy said. “An instrument to punch a piece of paper with a 10.”

Never under Hardy’s watch has a Robinson student used the rifle as a weapon, nor has anyone been struck by a bullet, he said. That trend holds nationally, too. The CMP reported the injury rate for air rifle marksmanship is about 0.0017 per athletic exposure per year. Amid all the issues surrounding gun control, competitive youth riflery is “a nonissue,” said Ladd Everitt, director of communications with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

The PHSRL teams used to compete with the more powerful .22 caliber small-bore rifles and still do in some cases. But because small bores require larger ranges — with ventilation systems to reduce lead exposure — the PHSRL has become an air rifle league.

The transition began in 1999 — a few months after the Columbine High School massacre — when Yorktown’s indoor range, which served Arlington schools for three decades, was closed for a combination of political and logistical reasons. School board members said they felt it was inappropriate to have guns on school grounds and that the space from the range could be used for additional classrooms.

Other Virginia schools practiced and competed with small-bore rifles at Fort Belvoir, but the base stopped permitting high school practices after the September 11 attacks because of increased security concerns, according to Hardy.

As small-bore ranges became less accessible, schools were running out of places to shoot, and the league started to crumble; only three teams competed regularly during the 2004-05 winter varsity season.

And so the PHSRL adapted, expanding to include air rifle competitions. That made the sport more accessible; air rifles can be shot anywhere, even in a garage, where ventilation systems and backstops aren’t needed. In June, the Arlington Fairfax Chapter launched a state of the art range — the Bucky Sills Air Rifle/Air Pistol Facility — which is home to Robinson and the other surrounding schools.

There are still .22 small-bore competitions; some teams practice at the NRA Range in Fairfax, and the competitive shooters will train there on their own as they prepare for individual competitions and NCAA riflery.

No matter the rifle, it’s the individual nature of the sport that attracts Carroll and her fellow competitive shooters. It requires strength, balance and endurance — for hours at a time, at some events. It’s taxing, both physically and mentally. But that’s what shooters — athletes in their own right — like Carroll said gets them going.

“Your heart is beating really quickly, it’s affecting the movement of the gun. If it’s hot, if I’m sweating, if I’m nervous, my heart rate will go up,” Carroll said. “It’s very individual. Yes, we compete as a team, but really it’s completely you.”