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Air Force MSgt. Carl Gentry, center, assists sophomore shooter Zori Champion with her weapon Tuesday at Ridgeland.

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Aiming for impact

Martin Camlic lay on his belly in Ridgeland High School's old maintenance shed last week, the stock of a precision air rifle pressed against his shoulder. He listened to his heartbeat, trying to pick the right time to pull the trigger between thumps.

"Sighting and preparation," announced Master Sgt. Carl Gentry, coach of the school's three- position air rifle team. "You have eight minutes. You're good to start."

Camlic and three other students aimed at sheets 32 feet, 9 inches away. Each sheet displayed 12 targets, divided into four rows of three. Two of the targets were for warm-ups. The other 10? Those counted for points — up to 10 points for piercing the very middle with a pellet about the size of a tack.

The students were competing in the Air Force National Postal Competition, an event for high school shooters across the world. When they finished shooting, Gentry would scan their sheets into the computer, and a software program would score each target based on how close the pellets came to the 10-ring, the center target.

If the students shot well enough, they could go to a national competition in Anniston, Ala., this February. But first, before they started, Gentry knew his students needed music. They're high school kids, after all. And what do high school kids want to hear? Well, the International Shooting Sports Federation's playlist on YouTube. And what's the first song Gentry picked? "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

So there lay Camlic, listening to Cyndi Lauper and his own heartbeat and the water pipes that run through the school's old maintenance room, screeching like a tea kettle. Camlic, a senior, has been shooting for about four years, long enough to understand the importance of the little things.

Before he shoots, he exhales for a second. But then he holds his breath. This keeps you calm, your body steady, so long as you don't wait longer than eight seconds. If you do that, you begin to panic. You need to reset. And before all this, on the morning of a day when he's going to shoot, Camlic skips the Dunkin' Donuts hazelnut coffee he loves. Caffeine makes you alert, but it also leaves your body a little fidgety. And a fidget, ever so slight, can lead to a pulled shot.

What is a pulled shot?

"The 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I did that' shots," he said.

Camlic floated his index finger in front of the nub of the trigger. He stared forward for about 12 seconds. He breathed in, breathed out, stopped breathing. He fired.

Camlic and the others repeated this routine for about 90 minutes, on their bellies, on their feet and then finally on their knees. Meanwhile, about 280 miles east, Pete Knapp inspected the car parts that his company manufactures.

Knapp has never been to Ridgeland High School. He's not an avid shooter himself. On the rare occasions he hunts, his wife refuses to eat his deer meat.

But for some reason, one Knapp can't quite explain, he is one of the team's biggest benefactors. Gentry said he has helped the team raise $20,000.

* * *

Gentry served in the U.S. Air Force for 22 years, three months and 18 days. Then, he woke up with a message from God, telling him he needed to teach Junior ROTC in North Georgia, an area he used to drive through on his way to vacations in the Smoky Mountains.

After taking a job at Ridgeland High School, he started a three-position air rifle team three years ago. He believed he could draw students who don't play traditional high school sports.

"It would give kids a place to fit in," he said. "Unless you're very athletic, it's hard to be on the football team. Unless you're really tall, it's hard to be on the basketball team. But pretty much everyone can be on the air rifle team. It doesn't matter what sex you are, how much you weigh or don't weigh."

Height or speed aside, there is an obstacle: money. To compete, you need air rifles, which can conservatively cost $1,000 each. And you need heavy-canvas shooting coats to keep your body restricted while you shoot. Those cost $100, on the low end.

You also need heavy-canvas pants, which cost $150. And you need flat-soled, polyester rubber shoes. With no arch, the shoes prevent you from shifting weight back in forth, keeping you steady. They cost about $100 a pair.

Gentry said some of his shooters couldn't compete on their own dime. They can't pay the $50 athletics fee that the school charges. On road trips, he said, they can't afford lunch.

Gentry and the players solicit donations outside Sportsman's Warehouse on Lee Highway. MidwayUSA, an outdoors sports retailer, also supplied the school with guns to raffle off. Two or three years ago, Gentry posted on a forum for Smith & Wesson lovers, asking if anybody wanted to buy a ticket to support his team.

Knapp read the post and sent Gentry a private message. He wanted to buy tickets. He asked if he could also sell tickets around Inman, S.C., a suburban town of about 2,100 people north of Spartanburg. He sold tickets to his son, his co-workers, his barber.

Gentry said Knapp has raised about $10,000 through the raffles, but two weeks ago he did not have access to all of the receipts he sent Knapp. He did, however, provide the Times Free Press with copies of receipts showing $4,920 in 2016-17. Through matching grants, the Georgia Youth Shooting Sports Foundation gave the school another $8,770, and MidwayUSA gave the school an additional $4,920. All told, Knapp's fundraising over the last two years led to $18,610 for the team.

Camlic, on his reaction to Knapp's fundraising efforts: "I was just like, 'Wow. Wow. That's good.'"

His teammate, senior Tyler Atchison: "He's definitely a guy who raises a lot of money."

Knapp, 63, has never visited North Georgia. He also isn't a three-position air rifle enthusiast, though his oldest grandson participated in the sport. Knapp doesn't shoot too often himself. He usually hunts deer with family members around Thanksgiving, but for him the activity is mostly just an excuse to hang with the guys.

Still, he wanted to feel like he was helping some students.

He started reading the Smith & Wesson forum a couple of years back to learn about a .44 Magnum with a 5-inch barrel. He remembered his father, Gerald, a former police captain in Tallmadge, Ohio, had a gun like that before he died. Gerald used to lead a youth baton and drum corps to about 50 parades a year, Pete Knapp said. He also worked off-duty shifts at Lujan's, a burger joint popular among teenagers. His obituary listed him as the "moral compass for the children of Tallmadge."

Gerald used to bring Pete Knapp hunting for squirrels, rabbits and ducks. He brought the boy to the range, too, whenever he needed to qualify to carry a pistol with the police department. When he died in 2007, Gerald left the guns to his son.

"He was a pretty cool guy," Pete Knapp said.

He was asked why he wanted to support a team in a town he never visited.

"I hope they're getting grounded," he said. "It's not the military. But they've got to have some structure. Hopefully, they'll take the right path."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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