Woodland Hills rifle team sets sights on championship target

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

By itself, the unbeaten start the Woodland Hills rifle team has put together this season is no cause for celebration.

The Wolverines have set their sights on WPIAL and state championships, and anything short of those aims would be disappointing.

“I'm satisfied with their progress so far,” coach Matt Rodrigues said. “This team is a very cohesive team, and I know that their potential is pretty much limitless. It's a terrifically strong program this year.”

During the process of building their 6-0 record, however, the Wolverines' laser-like focus has been met with unusual satisfaction at least twice, in instances that illustrated what this powerhouse rifle program is all about.

On Dec. 19 at Indiana, the varsity rifle team won with an astonishing score of 800-76x, the highest total in school history. The 800 signifies a perfect score — 100 points each from the top eight of 10 total shooters — while the 76 represents the combined number of perfect bull's eyes hit (out of a possible 80) by those eight individuals.

Shortly before Christmas, Woodland Hills' underclassmen competed in a scrimmage against Hempfield, whose varsity team edged the Wolverines' for last year's WPIAL title. With some varsity members mixed in with the junior varsity, but no seniors, Woodland Hills shot a perfect score then, too, showing that the team will be in capable hands even after its five senior members graduate.

Like any true sports program, Woodland Hills is just as concerned with preparing for the future as it is performing in the present.

“We're very, very, very proud of our program,” Rodrigues said. “I'm proud of the kids and the kids are proud of the program that they have created. That's another thing I tell them all the time: Look around at the success. You have done it. It is always within your power in any walk of life to create success, and this is an example of it for you.

“And I think that's really important for them, that they know that the success is with them. They have the power to do it within themselves.”

After winning their first six matches, the Wolverines were scheduled to face a pair of Section 2 opponents in Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair this week.

Woodland Hills is led by captains Miranda Johnston and Laura Valenti. Fellow seniors Nick Fisher, Miguel Breight and Sonny Breeger also play instrumental roles in the team's success.

Valenti, who had never shot a rifle before high school, joined the program as a freshman and made the varsity squad about halfway through that season. She is a testament to the machine that Rodrigues runs at Woodland Hills, where members of the rifle team interact with one another year-round while demonstrating a long-term commitment to marksmanship.

“On the rifle team, we all know how to work together and we all click,” Valenti said. “We all bring something to the team that just all clicks together. And I think it just meshes really well and that's why we're so successful.

“The people on the team are like a family to me. I've become so close to them.”

As a Pitt student next year, Valenti hopes to continue her involvement with the rifle team, just as the other members of its all-alumni coaching staff have done. That would be just fine with Rodrigues, whom Valenti referred to as “almost like a second father to all of us.”

The team's strong bonds are part of what makes it so successful. But while this particular family has enjoyed so many highlights, its best moments could still be ahead.

“These seniors, they have a silver, a gold and another silver (from past WPIAL championships),” Rodrigues said. “They want another gold. And beyond that, they want to be the first team in Woodland Hills history to win the state championship.”

Mark Emery is a freelance writer.

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