MAYBERRY — MAYBERRY - The first time Paul Koontz Jr. fired a gun, the 15-year-old Mayberry resident could barely walk.
It was only a dart gun, and Paul, not much more than a toddler at the time, can't even remember whether he hit his target, but what he does vividly recall is the feeling he got pulling the trigger; the same unrivaled thrill he gets as he fires away now.
"I've been shooting forever," Paul said shortly before he took aim at a round of clay birds yesterday. "If I had my way, I'd shoot every day of the week."
Hunting and shooting is a way of life in this area nestled about five miles west of Westminster, and local kids like Paul are practicing the art with the hope of winning national acclaim. Seven Mayberry boys will participate in the Youth Hunter Education Challenge, a competition sponsored by the National Rifle Association since 1985 that draws hundreds from across the country.
The local kids practiced yesterday at the Mayberry Game Protective Association for the competition to be held in Mansfield, Pa. The July 28 event includes such categories as the shotgun challenge, archery, small-bore rifle shoot, compass reading, muzzle-loading, hunter safety and wildlife identification.
It's an exhaustive and intense meet, lasting three days and featuring thousands of participants, according to NRA officials. Kids have to have completed hunter safety training and can qualify by competing in local and state competitions.
The squads under the Mayberry Game Protective Association qualified for nationals after placing second in the senior division (15- to 18-year-olds) and third in the junior division (14 and younger) at the Maryland state competition June 21.
Paul and others went through a light-hearted practice yesterday, feeling fairly confident they will do well in two weeks. It's the first time representatives from the four-year-old club have competed in a national event, an accomplishment in itself.
Steve McLeroy, one of the squad's founders and father of 14-year-old Nathan, said that clubs from Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties, along with Cumberland and other places, have fielded teams for several years, and that 12 teams participated in the state competition.
"We've progressed drastically from where we started that first year," he said. "The first year, we had one person get a ribbon at state. This year, both our teams got trophies. We're surprising a lot of teams that have been doing this much longer than we have. And it's because we have good kids who love the outdoors."
The boys are up to practicing four times a week, about three hours a day for the competition. They shoot on a pristine 80-acre site that features a shallow pond, perfectly manicured grass, 50-foot-high trees and several shooting ranges. Gunshots are incessant, echoing throughout the area.
It's the perfect place for bonding - for fathers to bring their sons, which is the case for many of those involved.
Some unfamiliar with the hunting culture may cringe at the sight of a 12-year-old pointing a rifle (as was the case with shooter Cory Bauerlien yesterday), but those involved say that is how the craft is learned.
Paul's father, who is coaching the Mayberry boys, said it was his father who introduced him to shooting at a young age.
"I've been shooting BB guns, pellet guns from when I could walk," said Paul Koontz Sr. "And I did the same for my son; dart guns, bow and arrows from when he could walk. We've grown up with guns. It's just what we do."
Added Steve McLeroy: "A lot of it has to do with area and environment. You've got a lot of old-timers around, and this is their way of life. And this is the way that gets passed on."
But not without expense.
McLeroy said the club is hosting a crab-feast fundraiser Saturday at the Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Hall near Westminster to help pay for the trip and ammunition. The boys can easily go through two $60 cases of ammunition a day.
Paul Koontz Jr. is the squad's best shooter, regularly nailing at least 23 of 25 clay birds during the rifle competition. He became that category's top shooter in the state in his initial appearance.
In a little more than a year, Paul joined the team and quickly outshot his counterparts. His success is part natural ability, part dedication, his father says.
Paul says if he is not shooting, he's home watching television shows about the sport.
"Everything in my life is focused around shooting and hunting and things like that," he said. "I was 10 when I shot my first deer. That's really when I knew this was what I wanted to do."