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The Hillsdale College shotgun team won its fourth consecutive national championship and fifth since 2012 at the Association of College Unions International Clay Targets tournament in San Antonio, Texas, this past weekend. (Photo: Amanda Klug / Courtesy)

The Hillsdale College shotgun team won its fourth consecutive national championship and fifth since 2012 at the Association of College Unions International Clay Targets tournament in San Antonio, Texas, this past weekend. The team’s 10 shooters earned a composite score of 2,244 targets hit — out of a possible 2,350 — during the competition, which began last Wednesday and ended Sunday.

Their score placed them second overall across the tournament’s four divisions and 84 teams, and first in Division III.

“I was extremely impressed by the level that our shooters are at and the way they handled the intensity of the competition,” said Amanda Klug, a student employee at the Halter Shooting Sports Education Center who travelled to San Antonio with the team. “They were able to focus, and, while it looks like they’re having a great time and having fun, they know that they’re there to get the job done.”

Five shooters made the All-American team and junior Drew Lieske’s score of 531 out of 550 earned him the High Overall award, given to the shooter with the highest individual composite score at the shoot. With this score, Lieske broke the ACUI record by five targets.

“Shooting with Drew — it was amazing to watch the focus and just how in tune he was all week, because it never let up,” senior team member Kie Kababik said. “Watching him shoot was amazing.”

Lieske has made the All-American team three times, every year he has competed in the championship.

Kababik tied for second overall with a score of 519, sophomore Matt Grunzweig tied for fifth overall with 516, senior Jordan Hintz was eighth with 515, and senior Ian Dupre was 24th with 508, the final All-American on the team. These five, the team’s top five shooters, shot better than any other team’s top five.

Despite their high level of success, the team’s members said they were nervous throughout the week, due to the dramatic improvement of Schreiner University, one of their main rivals on the national stage, between the 2016 and 2017 competitions.

“That is the most nervous I have ever been with a shotgun, because it was so close, and I knew I needed to shoot well,” Kababik said.

Schreiner’s team was only one target behind Hillsdale going into the final day, while Hillsdale commanded a lead of more than 10 targets at the same time last year.

“Last year we knew we had it locked up, but, this year, that one-target lead put the pressure on everybody,” Dupre said.

According to Dupre, that pressure helped the team earn a score of 496 out of 500 in American trap, beating last year’s score by one target and tying for first in the event with two other teams this year. To score a particular event, each team submits its five best individual scores, or, for international skeet and international trap, its best three.

Even if Hillsdale took its bottom five shooters, the team still would have had the highest score in Division III.

“The pressure was on,” Dupre said, “but everybody showed up.”

According to team members, one positive change between last year and this year is a deemphasis by the coaches on practices dedicated to one event or drill. Instead, each shooter has been given a greater liberty to use their 100-target allotment on whatever area they feel they need to improve personally.

“In the past, we’ve always had a very strict ‘Wednesday is trap day,’ for example, but this year, at least during the semester, that strictness was loosened up a lot, and it showed,” Hintz said. “Staying the way we’re doing it right now would be a good thing.”

Kababik added that another reason for the team’s heightened nerves throughout the week was a large, talented freshman Schreiner class, one of whom tied Kababik for second overall. Though this shooter worried some of the team members during the competition, a successful recruitment season and retention of its entire 2016-17 team will force Schreiner into Division II next year, away from the Hillsdale squad.

Hillsdale, however, will graduate three seniors — Dupre, Kyle Luttig, and Casey Links — and recruited just one shooter for the 2017-18 team. The team will drop to eight next year, its lowest since 2011-12, causing some team members to worry about next season.

“It goes from half the team needs to have a good day to the whole team needs to have a good day,” junior team member Emanuel Boyer said.

From the shooters’ perspective, part of the struggle with recruitment is cold or unpredictable Michigan weather and the academic rigor of Hillsdale itself. Many top recruits are from high schools in the Southeast or Southwest, meaning they are unaccustomed to low temperatures and unwilling to brave them for Hillsdale’s program.

If the team’s coaches and administrative staff do find candidates willing to look past the weather, Hillsdale’s low acceptance rate and high academic admission standards provide an additional barricade, one that is sometimes impossible for recruits to hurdle.

“It is extremely hard to get people into this school,” Kababik said. “Most of the people that are very good in the shooting disciplines have to travel a lot to get as good as they are, so their grades take a hit.”

Administrative staff say they believe better communication between the school and team could help bolster the recruitment process going forward. Part of the reason for Klug’s travelling with the team to the competition was to observe them and brainstorm ideas about how to amplify its image throughout campus and among the college’s administration.

“Part of the hope was that my being there as an outside observer would communicate the dire need that we are in to find shooters who are approaching where our athletes are at,” Klug said. “It is of the utmost importance that we are able to find and recruit great shooters and great Hillsdale shooters.”

Klug said she observed Hillsdale’s shooters as professional while shooting and friendly with one another all other times. For her, this is evidence of an elite team who embodies Hillsdale’s values, a team that needs to be recognized by campus so it can continue to flourish on the national stage.

“If you watch other teams shoot and how their shooters act together, or how the individual shooter handles missing a target, then you watch one of ours, you can see there is a difference between being a good shooter and a great shooter,” Klug said. “We have 10 great shooters.”