Those were the words from the 2011 Griffin High Air Rifle team to their head coach, Sgt. Major Julius Lang, before their state-championship match against East Coweta on April 2 at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
The Griffin High rifle team didn’t disappoint, shooting its way to a 1148-1146 win over East Coweta to claim the Bears first-ever state title win in riflery. It came down to the last shot from Bears junior co-captain William Cross, who needed to shoot at least an 8 on the bullseye to tie. Cross did better than that, hitting the middle of the target for a 10 and the win. It was Griffin’s first state title victory in four tries under Lang, who’s been coaching the Griffin High rifle team since 1997. During Lang’s tenure, the Bears made state trips in 2002, 2003 and 2005 with a state runner-up finish in 2003. Before Lang, the Bears made state three straight years (1992-94) without a title.
“The feeling I had when William hit that shot cannot be described,” said Lang, who is also Griffin’s JROTC instructor. “It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, right up there with achieving my highest rank in the Army. All I could think of is that we made it. I was very proud of the whole team.”
It was too bad Lang didn’t see the final shots — he was so nervous that he had to go outside the shooting range into the hallway as the teams were shooting.
“I didn’t want the kids to see me react during their shots and get nervous themselves, so I stood outside and got score reports from the parents every few minutes,” he said.
But Lang wasn’t the only one out in the hallway. East Coweta’s rifle coach John Skinner joined him out there as well.
“Coach Skinner couldn’t bear to watch, either. He was just as nervous as I was,” Lang said.
But there was no need for Lang to be nervous — his confident Bears team did what it had to do. Cross, who also won the 2011 individual state rifle title, didn’t succumb to the pressure of the moment, outshooting his friend Tyler Dayton of East Coweta to help win the team state championship.
“I really felt relieved after everything was over. People were expecting me to do well, especially since I was our last shooter and I was battling Tyler neck and neck,” said Cross, who’s also part of the JROTC. “When I made my shot and saw everyone cheering, that’s when I finally calmed down.”
Cross said he actually didn’t know how many points he needed and that the score was tied at 858 when it was his turn to shoot. What made him nervous was actually falling behind in his time. Shooters get 15 minutes to shoot 10 targets and before he knew it, Cross realized he had only five minutes to shoot seven shots.
“I wanted to make sure that I would shoot well, getting past the 10’s,” Cross said. “I think I waited a bit too long.”
Cross eventually made his shots in time for the win, which was aided by Lang’s different coaching strategy this year than in 2003.
“This year I set up the team to have my most experienced shooters at the start and at the end and went with two others in the middle,” Lang said. “In 2003, we weren’t as experienced but my first two shooters helped us build a 15-point lead. Unfortunately, my least experienced shooters were at the end that year and we ended up losing the state title by three points to Woodward Academy.”
In 2011, Griffin team captain Sara Howell got the Bears off to a great shot and her teammates Ale Gonzalez and Kayla Collett kept the Bears close enough for Cross to win it at the end.
Cross’ good shots and Lang’s coaching prowess enabled them to be recognized as the 2011 Rifle Athlete of the Year and the Rifle Coach of the Year by the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association.
“Winning the state championship and coach of the year is the best way to end the season. It’s extremely gratifying,” Lang said. “And the great thing about this team is they’re all coming back next season. The whole state will be gunning for GHS.”
For Cross, riflery is something he’s been fond of since the fifth grade. His grandfather is heavily involved in shooting, so much so that when Cross got to Griffin High, he bought him his rifle and his rifle suit that shooters are required to wear.
Lang knew that Cross would do well in riflery the moment he met him. He said Cross had an air of confidence about him and he felt Cross could hold his own in riflery, a sport that is not just for ROTC members. Any student, male or female, can tryout for the rifle team, but it’s mostly a female-dominated varsity sport.
“I told him that my best shooters in the past have been the girls on the team and he told me that was going to change,” Lang remembered. “He’s the only male I’ve had that’s won a state gold medal.”
Cross joined Heather Hayes (2003 Gold medal) as Griffin’s only individual state titlist. Jessica McClain won the Silver medal in 2003 and Howell won the Bronze medal this year.
As a freshman, Cross played soccer and competed on the rifle team — leaving one spring semester sport to participate in the other. He knew he had to make a decision eventually.
“I felt I was an okay soccer player, but I knew that I could do very well in riflery,” he said. “I chose the rifle team over soccer as a sophomore and haven’t looked back. I think I made the right decision.”
Next for the Griffin rifle team is a chance to compete in the Air Rifle Junior Olympics, slated for June 23-25 in Port Clinton, Ohio at Camp Perry. Cross is definitely looking forward to that competition.
“The best shooters in the country will be there, some who are nationally known,” he said. “College recruiters will also be there, so there could be a chance for scholarship opportunities.”