The thickness of a hair was all that separated the Lancaster rifle team from Section VI championships last year.
The final score read Kenmore 1,138, Lancaster 1,137 in the three-position event. The Legends also placed second in the 30-shot standing team competition, seven points behind Alden, 1,114-1,107.
“No joke,” Lancaster coach Leif Johnson said. “When the top four and five are shooting, it’s just the thickness of a hair difference between a minus-zero and minus-one.”
With a pair of runner-up finishes in 2017, there’s a sense of unfinished business surrounding the Legends this season.
Johnson feels it. So does senior standout Kiersten Mucha.
“Honestly, in past seasons’ matches, we kind of all haven’t been on,” said Mucha, last year’s Prep Talk Player of the Year for rifle. “All of us have been on this year. Everything has gone in our favor. We’re on an uphill climb and haven’t plateaued.”
“Absolutely,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely our goal to win both of those.”
Lancaster finished the 30-shot portion of this year’s schedule with a perfect 7-0 record and is tied for first with Clarence at 5-1 in the three-position entering Tuesday’s match against Orchard Park.
Leading the charge is Mucha, the No. 1 shooter in Western New York in the 30-shot with an average of 285.17. She’s the reigning NYSPHSAA champ in three-position kneeling, shooting a state-record 99.8, and won the sectional title in the 30-shot.
“It felt like a great triumph,” Mucha said. “All season last year, coach can show you how to do it, but you have to work with it yourself. I figured it out, and it was a great feeling knowing all the work paid off.”
After finishing second in three-position aggregate at sectionals last year, Mucha's looking to add a couple more ribbons to her collection at the Section VI Championships Saturday at Alden Middle School.
On March 3, four shooters from the team champions plus the top two finishers from other schools head to the NYSPHSAA Championships held at West Point Military Academy.
“I’ve just tried to shoot every single match and practice like it’s my very last,” Mucha said. “Knowing one little shot could be between winning and losing is motivation for all of us.”
Sophomore teammate Alex Hangen isn’t far behind with an average of 277.5, good for second best in the area.
Mucha and Hangen are joined by Mason Kowalski, Jessica Clark, Janel Koeth and Emma Randall, who have all swapped between the Nos. 3-5 spots in the lineup.
Together, it’s the best collection of talent at Lancaster since the 1980s or 1990s, according to Section VI chair and former longtime Alden coach Paul Borkowski.
“I just kind of like the fact that it’s changing who is in the top five,” Mucha said. “There’s no real jealousy. It’s constant motivation to be the best and be in the top five. That’s also part of our success this season.”
“They’ve been together almost all of them since their freshman years, a couple eighth grade, so it’s been a natural progression,” Johnson said. “The first year you learn how the matches go, positions, and then the skills just develop year after year. The team seems to be a tight group, supportive of each other and just enjoy being together.”
That’s because they are a tight group. The success on the range starts outside of it.
“I think we have a team comradery this year that we haven’t had in the past,” Mucha said. “We have a team circle and a pep talk before matches. We do a lot of stuff outside of practice, too, like dinner, movies and bowling. It really helps. It’s a total team effort.
“I think it helps us in the sense that we know when to get serious. We know we have our fun time, but when we go to shoot we gotta be serious.”
Clarence has been the lone team to hand Lancaster a loss this year.
The Red Devils set an ECIC record with a 1,151 in a three-position match against the Legends in mid-January. Clarence’s Matt Kirk matched the individual ECIC record that day by shooting a 295, a score Mucha originally set last season. (Mucha’s highest score this season is a 293.)
Clarence's reign was short-lived. A week later, Lancaster’s Mucha, Hangen, Clark and Koeth shot a combined 1,152 for a new top score.
“We’ve been pretty competitive for the last three years, but this year we’ve been a little bit ahead of the other teams in the section which is nice,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of teams in Section VI that are really competitive. We’ve just been blessed with coming out and shooting a little bit better. It really could be any team’s game. It just depends who shows up relaxed.”