As 16-year-old Hunter Efird stood on stage inside Straughn Auditorium on the campus of Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa., with his friends and teammates from the North Carolina Gray Stone Marksmanship Team, he didn’t think his week could get any better.
Hunter and his teammates had just captured the senior team championship at the 2012 NRA International Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC), a title that had just eluded them the year before.
Moments earlier, his cousin, Shannon Efird, had been named the individual champion in YHEC’s junior division, becoming the first female ever to claim high overall honors in the 27-year history of the International YHEC. Shannon’s success had also propelled her team, the North Carolina Park Ridge Sharpshooters, which was coached by Hunter’s dad, Heath, to the junior team title.
It had been a great week for the crew from Albemarle, N.C., Hunter thought, even if he was unlikely to claim a third consecutive individual YHEC championship of his own. Too many missed opportunities on the archery, rifle and shotgun courses had doomed his chances of a three-peat, at least in his mind.
But not in reality.
Much to his surprise, Hunter pulled off the Albemarle sweep, claiming his second straight senior title to go with the junior championship he won in 2010.
“It’s pretty special,” Hunter said afterwards, fighting back the raw emotion of the moment. “I really feel like there was a guiding force involved. I’ll be honest, I prayed so much. I feel like God was on my right shoulder the whole time.”
Hunter said his individual title was sweeter this time around because it was paired with a team victory.
“Last year, we didn’t win it as a team,” he said. “That was the worst part. I know it’s all about coming out here and having fun, but for us having fun means winning. I’m just so glad we got an opportunity to do this. It’s not bittersweet like last year. This is pure sugar.”
His cousin’s historic victory was the cherry on top.
“Shannon deserves this more than anyone,” said Hunter. “Hands down, she was the best shooter out here.
“The crazy thing is now she’s competition for next year,” Hunter added, laughing. “She’s really good.”
Shannon’s unprecedented achievement is indicative of the growing presence of women in hunting and shooting.
“It’s an honor,” said Shannon, 14. “It’s so great to be able to share this with my team. I know they’re the ones who got me here.”
Shannon, who has hunted since age 7 and lists whitetail deer as her favorite quarry, said that months of practice, sometimes every day, made the difference.
And that was on a surgically repaired knee.
“We put in a ton of hours,” said Shannon’s dad, Eric, who coached his nephew Hunter’s senior team. “She had ACL reconstructive surgery at the end of December and didn’t know if she would be able to compete. For her to come back from that and win on the state level two years in a row and then come here and do this, it’s beyond my comprehension.
“She set a goal two years ago to do this and got real close last year. As a father, I couldn’t be more proud of what she’s accomplished.”
This year’s International YHEC was held at Mansfield University and the Mill Cove Environmental Center from July 22-27. More than 300 youth hunters from 13 states, plus their families and coaches, took part in the event, which is the largest and most comprehensive youth hunter skills competition of its kind in the country.
The aim of the YHEC program is to build on the concepts kids learn in conventional hunter education classes and have them apply that knowledge under simulated hunting conditions. After completing a hunter safety course and participating in a local or state YHEC event, youngsters are eligible to compete at the International YHEC.
YHEC is comprised of eight events that challenge each participant’s marksmanship abilities, woodsmanship, and safety knowledge.
Participants shot muzzleloaders at knock-down silhouette targets, .22-caliber rifles at spinner targets, shotguns on a multiple-station sporting clays course, and archery on a wooded 3-D course. All of the shooting events were designed to simulate actual hunting situations as closely as possible, and only conventional sporting arms and bows were used.
The remaining four events, known as responsibility challenges, included a map and compass course, a written test called the Hunter Responsibility Exam, a wildlife identification course, and the Hunter Safety Trail, where the young hunters encountered hunting scenarios that required a safety or ethical decision.
Participants earned points in each event and competed for both individual and team awards in two age categories: senior (ages 15-18) and junior (ages 14 and under). Each event offered a maximum score of 300 points for an individual and 1,500 points for a five-person team. Combined, an individual participant could achieve a maximum score of 2,400 points for all eight events; teams could accumulate a maximum score of 12,000 points.
Additional side events were held for fun, including a swap meet, turkey shoot, flu-flu arrow shoot, and an event called Cherokee Run, where participants completed a series of challenges that ranged from throwing tomahawks and spears to ring toss and horseshoes.
Hunter and Shannon both earned whitetail deer hunts at Gsell’s Whitetail Refuge in Fayetteville, Pa., later this year for their first-place finishes. Other prizes for them and their teams included muzzleloaders, bows, arrows, ammunition, firearm accessories, medallions and patches.
However, points and prizes are not what YHEC is about. The kids who traveled to Mansfield, some covering thousands of miles to get there, represent the very best and brightest young people our country has to offer. They are the future of hunting.
NRA 2nd Vice President Allan Cors, who grew up hunting and shooting in Cincinnati, Ohio, echoed that point when addressing the participants at the awards ceremony.
“When I was asked to be here I had a prior commitment today, but I immediately said ‘yes’ because YHEC, I believe, is the most important of all of NRA’s programs,” said Cors. “When I was growing up we had an easy time finding places to shoot. I actually hunted in the city limits of Cincinnati. It’s different for you. Finding a place to hunt and shoot is one of the biggest challenges we face today.
“I hope you will treasure this experience. You have already met the challenge back home preparing for this event. You have met the challenge this week in Mansfield. Now, I challenge you to carry on the tradition of hunting in the years ahead.”
The value of YHEC extends beyond the events themselves. The program teaches kids about sportsmanship, responsibility, and ethics. Friendships are made through YHEC, family bonds are strengthened, and the participants gain a deeper appreciation for the hunting tradition and the importance of keeping it alive for future generations.
One need look no future than the dedication of the many volunteers who make the program possible, the kind smiles from everyone you meet, and the throngs of parents who line up at each event to offer encouragement to not just their own children, but all of the kids, to see that YHEC is a program that’s making a difference.
“When the day is finished, more than 300 competitors will have fired more than 22,000 shots,” said Charlie Fox, a longtime YHEC volunteer from Pennsylvania who has attended every single International YHEC since the program’s founding in 1985. “I have not heard one bad word. I have not heard anyone be disrespectful. These are the finest, best trained young people in the country when it comes to the shooting sports. I don’t know how you can say it any better than that.”
NRA’s YHEC program is made possible by generous contributions from companies like MidwayUSA, Cabela’s, Remington, Federal Premium Ammunition, Swarovski Optik, Hodgdon, Gsell’s Whitetail Refuge, Hoyt, Drury Outdoors, the Camp Fire Conservation Fund, Mzuri Wildlife Foundation, The Big Game Hunters Foundation, the North American Crossbow Federation, Bear & Son Cutlery, and The NRA Foundation. The 2013 International YHEC will be held at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M., Jul. 21-26. To learn more about the YHEC program or to get involved, visit www.nrayhec.org.
2012 YHEC Overall Winners
Junior Individual Overall Winners
1. Shannon Efird, N.C. Park Ridge Sharpshooters, 1830
2. Zachary Meyer, Arkansas Realtree Juniors, 1805
3. David Leavitt, Oregon Junior Team, 1695
Senior Individual Overall Winners
1. Hunter Efird, N.C. Gray Stone Marksmanship, 1882
2. Andrew Welker, N.C. Gray Stone Marksmanship, 1862
3. Nicholas Kiter, N.C. Forbush Senior Red, 1817
Junior Team Overall Winners
1. N.C. Park Ridge Sharpshooters, 8338
Mitchell Faulkner, Shannon Efird, Megan Frick, Skyler Efird, Patrick Stamey
Coach: Heath Efird
2. Oregon Junior Team, 7799
David Leavitt, Braden Staebler-Siewell, Austin Rolfe, Josiah Ogg, Kayla Pieren
Coach: Terry Leavitt
3. PA Junior Gold, 7088
Clayton Mount, Tod Everts, Donald Springstead, Mitchell Robson, Jarrod Rathbun
Coach: Robert Wolfe
Senior Team Overall Winners
1. N.C. Gray Stone Marksmanship, 8717
Andrew Welker, Jackson Allen, Michael Huneycutt, Hunter Efird, Jenna Stamey
Coach: Eric Efird
2. Oregon Senior Team, 8661
Cheryl Shaver, Nicholas Vowell, Brian Staebler-Siewell, Reed Koozer, Dustin Harrold
Coach: Carl Shaver
3. N.C. Forbush Senior Red, 8332
Norris McLelland II, Colton Horn, Drew Queen, Nicholas Kiter, Dakota Baker
Coach: Joel Dinkins