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Posted March 31, 2016

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EHS Junior Wins National JROTC Air Rifle Crown

Mark Amdahl earned the top honor by defeating the "cream of the crop," the top 86 high school cadets from across the country in mid-March.

Story contributed by Lt. Col. Harold Smith, U.S. Marine Corps (retired)

A catchy tune contributed to the earning of a prestigious national title for a 17-year-old Eldorado High School student.

“What I like to do is keep a song in my head when I’m practicing,” said Mark Amdahl, an EHS Marine Corps Junior ROTC cadet staff sergeant after he won the 2016 JROTC National Championship individual precision air-rifle crown at the South Civilian Marksmanship Program Competition Center in Anniston, Ala., on March 19. “When you see me move my head, I’m jamming out to a song. It keeps me focused.”

Amdahl, who won the state JROTC title earlier this year, said he shot a national-meet score of 1,282.7 to defeat a field of 86 high school cadets from units which hailed from all over the country and respectively represented the service branches. The championship shooters were the remaining cream of the crop after a mass of competitors were eliminated following earlier postal and regional matches.

The Eldorado junior knew he had a good chance of claiming first place even as he tried to focus on firing from the prone, kneeling and standing positions at a 10-meter indoor range.

“I thought about it during every shot,” said Amdahl, who is a fan of Relient K, a Christian indie-rock band. “It put pressure on me. It affected me negatively, but I just thought of the song ("Look On Up.") It was more about the tune than the words.”

 His success at nationals wasn’t a matter of him being particularly fancy or complicated in his approach to the sport, other than maybe with the use of his German-made, $3,000-plus Feinwerkbau precision air rifle and its assorted accouterments.

“It was the basics, sight alignment and sight picture and natural point of aim,” he said. “Afterward, I was smiling for a while.”

Amdahl was part of an EHS Eagles quartet that placed fifth at the national meet. The team was captained by Cadet Staff Sgt. Haley Castillo. The junior was New Mexico’s state JROTC champion in 2015.

Castillo, who finished seventh with a 1,270.3 points, said she didn’t shoot as well as she would have liked on March 19. She had also placed seventh at the 2015 National Rifle Association 3-Position Air Gun Championships at West Mesa High School last summer.

“This time, I was, like, I lost confidence in myself after the first bad shot I took,” she said.

Castillo, though a Top-10 finish isn’t too shabby by any standard, was a bit disappointed in herself, but she was visibly happy for and proud of her teammate. It’s been her leadership that has been the foundation for the team’s successes.

“He gives me a challenge. He gives the entire team a challenge,” she said.

Castillo’s mother, as the Eagles’ adult female chaperone during their trip to Alabama, had a first-hand view of her daughter’s performance.

“I’m very proud of her. She’s a natural,” Helena Castillo said. “They had TV screens there. You could watch it on TV. It was nerve-racking. You keep saying, ‘Hit the 10 (ring), hit the 10.’ This has been good for her. She’s got friends now from all over the United States. It’s opened the door for her.”

The Eagles were comprised of Amdahl and three female cadets. In addition to Castillo, the girls included Cadet Sgt. Brielle Smith, a sophomore, and Cadet Lance Cpl. Brianna Espericueta, a freshman.

“Women comprise 20 percent of the competitive shooters,” said retired Marine Maj. Bill Barker, Albuquerque Public School’s district military instructor. “But they make up 60 percent of the top shooters.”

Amdahl’s coach is James Koerber, the Eldorado JROTC Senior Marine Instructor. This was the retired major’s first individual title and highest team finish as a coach in his nine years at EHS.

“I identify my precision shooters sooner now,” said Koerber, a former artillery officer. “I used to start them out as sporter shooters (who use cheaper rifles) and then move them up to precision. Now, I pick them as freshman, but I don’t pick them based on their sporter scores. I chose them in the beginning solely based on their demeanor and ability to focus.”

Barker was an air-rifle coach and senior military instructor at La Cueva High School prior to assuming his current post.

“He puts the shots behind him,” Barker said of Amdahl. “Some people take a bad shot and turn around, look at the crowd and shrug their shoulders. And some people will make a good shot, everyone will oooh and aaah, and then they’ll turn around and acknowledge the crowd. It’s actually easier to put a bad shot behind you. But with Mark, it’s all inconsequential to him. He looks at the process rather than the result.”

APS has a tradition of producing national-champion cadets. Barker, who coached teams to multiple JROTC national titles, said Amdahl is treading a path blazed by former La Cueva cadet Parker Tomasi, who earned the national title when he was in high school.

Tomasi subsequently coached Amdahl to the New Mexico Game and Fish-sponsored National Archery in the Schools Program state individual bow-and-arrow championship when Amdahl was a Leadership cadet at Eisenhower Middle School. Tomasi, who later earned the National Distinguished Marksman award as a competitive Marine rifle shooter, was the Leadership Program instructor at Eisenhower and Hoover middle schools prior to going on active duty.

“He’s following in the footsteps of Lt. Tomasi,” Barker said.

Barker said Tomasi is now a combat engineer officer with the rank of first lieutenant . He said Tomasi is stationed with the Third Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.

Amdahl’s dream is to attend and compete for one of the service academies. Eventually, like Castillo, his goal is to be an airline pilot.

Amdahl is the son of David and Jennifer Amdahl.

“I do think it’s a natural thing with him,” said Mark’s father, a retired Air Force major and a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate. “I mean, it takes a lot of practice and precision, but it is kind of a knack. The ROTC program at Eldorado with Maj. Koerber is part of the reason he’s successful, too. We’re all proud of Mark.”

Harold Smith is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. He currently is the Leadership Program instructor at  Hoover Middle School.

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