It’s 6:30 a.m., and as usual Camp Perry is humming with activity. Military jeeps cruise the roads, the last soldier has left the barracks, and a dozen men and women crowd the flagpole—ready to raise the flag at 7:00 am. However, this morning is a bit different than usual.
The two massive firing ranges on base are full of people (each range is a 600-yard-long field ending in a row of 100 targets, with Lake Erie behind them). Military personnel and civilians roam the grass together, all carrying rifles and searching for their designated firing point in unison. This is the first day of the National Trophy Rifle Matches—one of many that comprise the historic National Matches. These yearly championships feature the best rifle marksmen in the country.
On the other side of Camp Perry, there is a long “L”-shaped building that borders a small grassy park. The building is a motel of sorts, serving the elderly civilians who come to compete in the National Matches. In one room, a light bulb springs to life, illuminating the king-sized bed, couch, table and small kitchen. This room is Connie Taylor’s home for the next two weeks while she attends the National Matches.
The California Grizzlies
Taylor (pictured at top, right) is from Jamestown, CA, home of the California Grizzlies youth rifle team. Although not a competitor, Taylor flies to Ohio every year for the National Matches to help the Grizzlies. She's worked with the team for 22 years, since since her son Robert joined the team.
Her efforts have molded the Grizzly program from a ragtag assortment of young shooters into a strong curriculum of marksmanship, integrity and responsibility. Although 17 years have passed since her son was on the team, Taylor remains a major part of the Grizzlies.
The California Grizzlies began as a local youth club in Jamestown, CA, to teach kids firearm safety. The group, ranging from 12-20, had a handful of members who were taught safety and marksmanship by a single coach. The few members were local kids with an interest in shooting. The club had barely enough members for a full National Matches team. Although the group attended every year, they usually placed near rock bottom.
Taylor first got involved in the club when her sons, Robert and Ed, joined the Grizzlies. The two boys regularly attended the program and eventually started teaching the younger club members. Taylor helped as a mom, driving Robert and Ed to the gun range and making hot dogs for the weekly practice sessions. Three years after Robert joined the group, the head coach asked him to fly to Ohio with the Grizzlies.
When he came back, Robert impressed Taylor with a newfound level of maturity.
“He was a totally changed kid,” said Taylor. “He had goals and different things in mind he wanted to accomplish. That was my convincing that I wanted to be more a part of the junior team.”
Robert’s first trip to Camp Perry and his new maturity spurred Taylor into action.
“I was just so impressed with the kids and the people involved that it was important for me to be more involved,” said Taylor.
From talking to the coach of the Grizzlies (his name is Wayne), Taylor knew that none of the parents helped the team. Wayne felt exhausted and ready to retire. He’d been managing the shooters—including their transportation, housing and match registration by himself for years. Taylor grabbed the reins, taking over the team’s paperwork, which left Wayne free to focus on coaching.
In her first year assisting, Taylor filled out paperwork and registered the team for competitions. Wayne was free to forget about the clerical side of the team—free enough that he forgot all the important documents in California!
“Luckily,” said Taylor, “I made copies and faxed them to him. Since I started doing paperwork and started going back to Camp Perry, Wayne never talked about retiring again.”
Team Mom Aids Team Success
Taylor’s love for all the kids grew as she spent more summers with them. At first, the juniors had to manage themselves at Camp Perry. However, the long, hot days on the range completely exhaust shooters. The kids barely had enough energy to find dinner, let alone concentrate on performance.
Taylor used her skills as a mom to take stress off the juniors. She took on many jobs, improving and lending a hand wherever she could. She cooked dinner, improved accomodations (the kids finally moved out of the 50-year-old POW huts), found cheaper plane tickets and even piloted a contract by which the team still acts. Her actions allowed the shooters and coach to focus on the competition, instead of logistical tasks.
Subsequently, the team has flourished in both size and ability.
“Their talent has really increased over the years,” said Taylor. “It’s because we were doing enough stuff right that’s helping the kids concentrate on their shooting.”
In the last 22 years, the California Grizzlies grew from eight to 18 members and now is one of the most successful junior teams in history. During Taylor’s tenure as team mom, the Grizzlies have won dozens of national titles and continue to be among the most competitive junior teams in the USA.
The support network that she started has expanded. Many parents of past and current Grizzlies do the logistical work that Taylor first took on years ago. She still works as a mom, taking care of her team.
Taylor thinks of the juniors as an extended family. She regularly contacts both current and former Grizzlies, chatting about their lives and goals. Phone calls with her usually last an hour, which is just enough time to catch up. Taylor may spend hours going through her formidable contact list, but she always gets to the entire family.
The team’s extended family includes juniors from all over California, but Taylor still wants the community to expand. She encourages the team to reach out to their local communities and provide good representations of the safe use of firearms.
Responsible junior shooters
In the modern political climate, especially in California, there is a lot of negative stigma about firearms. Media often portrays guns solely as weapons of mass murder, but when people see a group of young people being responsible and successful with firearms, some of that stigma melts away. The more people are educated on how firearms work and on their safety, the less gun violence and accidents occur. Maintaining a positive public outlook on guns is the key to ensuring that the hard work survives for future juniors.
The Grizzly team continues to mold kids into mature and driven people, just as they molded Robert 22 years ago. Decades of hard work only streamlined and improved the program, producing many respectful, mature and skilled shooters and citizens.
Taylor’s enthusiasm and dedication to the Grizzlies also continue unabated.
“I’ve never been prouder than when coming home from Ohio this year,” she said. “I was so proud of the whole team, in how they acted and responded … I already have our tickets for next year!”