The college basketball frenzy known as March Madness; the venerable Masters golf tournament; yet another major league baseball season – those are just a few of the sporting phenomena that garner headlines in the weeks following the Spring Equinox each year.
But, there is another sport that is going full bore as the dogwoods bloom and tom turkeys begin to strut in farmers’ fields. It’s the annual Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) program (called Youth Hunter Education Skills in N.C.)
Culminating with a national championship in mid-summer, YHEC is a program in which groups of teens, organized through public and private schools, 4-H clubs, FFA programs or similar entities compete in trap shooting, archery, rifle marksmanship, orienteering and hunter skills.
The last involves tests in hunter responsibility, safety and wildlife identification. Designed to promote safe and responsible hunting and shooting, as well as outdoor ethics and sportsmanship, a national YHEC event was started by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 1985. Since then, over 1.25 million youth age 18 and under have participated.
In North Carolina, where it operates under the auspice of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), there are 327 teams representing all parts of the state. Here the program is in its 41 st year and its popularity is such that many groups field two or more squads. YHEC isn’t all about beating other teams, however. Although that is important once organized competition starts, at the individual level the emphasis is on youngsters developing leadership skills, self-confidence, discipline and respect for authority – things that will be valuable throughout life. Mike Smith, who has directed the YHEC program at West Craven High School for over 16 years, said recently that those who participate on that school’s team tend to be well-disciplined young people who show a willingness to abide by the rules, listen to their instructors and do the best they can.
He said that if a youngster does not do those things, he or she does not participate. Eighteen boys and one girl comprise the West Craven YHEC team, divided into “A” and “B” squads in competition.
The West Craven YHEC team has always been competitive but, this year, is especially so. At the District 2 tournament, held at the New Hanover Law
Enforcement Officer Range in Castle Hayne, NC on March 17, the Eagles’ “A” team finished second overall out of 47 teams.. As a result, they qualified to participate in the state championship tournament which will be in Ellerbe, NC at the Lentz Hunter Education Complex on April 28. South Lenoir’s FFA, Jones Senior and the Pamlico Pintails finished 3 rd , 4th and 6th respectively.
In compiling their outstanding score at the district tournament, West Craven’s “A” team took first place in the archery competition, fourth in small-bore rifle, seventh in trap shooting and sixth in orienteering. In addition, Colby Taylor, a 15-year-old sophomore, earned first-place individual honors in the shotgun competition. In accomplishing that, he recorded a perfect 20-shot round and then was “the last man standing” after 22 other participants who tied with him were eliminated in four rounds of doubles.
The members of the West Craven YHEC team that competed in the district tournament this year were Noah Holton, Isaac Kirkman, Lucas Veneziano, Jacob Wood, Zachary Buck, Cody Batchelor, Roger Heckman, Chris Wimmer, Timothy Pittman, Jordan Goodrich and Colby Taylor. Mike Smith is assisted in coaching the team by Lane Benton, Bart Holton, Robert Schultz, Matt Heckman, Mike Clark and Brian Yeaton.
According to Chet Clark, Eastern Outreach Manager for the NCWRC, volunteers like those who work with the West Craven students are a vital part of the program. “The amount of time spent by these volunteers teaching and mentoring the kids about safety, ethics and sportsmanship goes a long way in them developing into safe and responsible hunters and marksmen and women,” Clark said recently.
One requirement for all YHEC participants, even though it isn’t part of the competition, is that they must take and pass a state-approved hunter safety course.
At the state tournament, there will a Hunter Skills event that will consist of two phases. The first part will be a written exam combining questions, wildlife identification, tracks or signs, and situations found throughout the NCWRC’s Hunter Education Manual. The second phase will be an orienteering course in which participating squads will be required to follow a compass bearing to a pre-determined station.
In the shotgun competition at the state tournament, competitors will shoot 20-shot rounds of “five-station trap.” Unlike in the district competition, where the trap thrower was situated in line with the shooters, between positions 3 and 4, at the state level it will be 16 yards in front of the center of the line. There will also be some changes for archery and small bore (.22-caliber) rifle. In the former, archers will shoot five arrows at each target at ranges of 15, 20, 25 and 30 yards instead of at 10-15- 20 and 25. For the latter, rifle targets will be situated at 75 rather than 50 feet.
Smith said that, even with the minor changes in the events, he expects the West Craven team to do well at the state level. They have been practicing every weekend at the Craven County Law Enforcement Officers Association range and, whenever possible, on their own. The top-scoring teams and individuals at the state tournament will be eligible to enter the 2018 National Youth Hunter Education Challenge – the YHEC Championship – July 22-27 at the Mill Cove Environmental Center in Mansfield, Pa.
Regardless of where they finish at the state level, however, all the young sportsmen who are involved in YHEC are already winners. They have learned lessons that will serve them well in years to come and have demonstrated character traits that make their parents and coaches proud.
Ed Wall can be reached at email@example.com or 252-671- 3207. His web site is www.edwalloutdoors.com