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Aiming for Greatness

A teenage boy stands outside with a firearm resting on his shoulder.
The 4-H S.A.F.E.T.Y. (Safe Archery and Firearms Education and Training for Youth) program gives youth firearm safety training.

4-H'er learns life lessons in national competition

Story by Leah Barbour • Photos by Kevin Hudson

4-H S.A.F.E.T.Y. is Mississippi 4-H’s biggest program. Competitors in the Safe Archery and Firearms Education and Training for Youth program are immersed in essential firearm-safety training to learn maturity, self-discipline, responsibility, and sportsmanship.

More than 700 adult instructors support the thousands of Mississippi young people enrolled in 4-H S.A.F.E.T.Y. When the competition cycle begins, the young people and the adults teaching them put on their game faces. Mississippi 4-H’ers can qualify for the National 4-H Shooting Sports National Championship only one time in each firearm discipline, and rivalry is intense.


Video by Michaela Parker

Held in June 2019 in Grand Island, Nebraska, nationals featured a Mississippi 4-H team—made up of 25 4-H’ers on 15 teams—that received the most honors and highest placement of any Mississippi team ever to compete.

The focus for the 4-H shotgun team at nationals, however, was not on winning at any cost, explains team member John Ryan Soignier. Instead, he says, it was about everyone doing their individual best and enjoying the experience of a lifetime.

His team had a rough first day. Led by Hinds County volunteer Morgan Hartzog, Soignier’s own local coach, the Mississippi 4-H shotgun team knew it needed to regroup before hitting the range on day two, Soignier says.

Hartzog shakes his head when considering the rough start to the shotgun team’s national competition.

“It’s really all a mental game,” he says. “Most of the kids at nationals are proficient with the mechanics, but they need more relaxation and focus in the mental part of the game. For these kids, at their level, that’s really the most important part: controlling the mental aspect.

“The best of the best have days that they shoot below average,” Hartzog continues. “Don’t be embarrassed; anybody that knows anything about shooting knows it will happen to all of us. The kids have to just go enjoy that experience. And they did.”

Soignier agrees and explains how he and his teammates eventually rebounded.

“Once you get down, it’s really hard to get it back,” he observes. “Mr. Morgan said, ‘You’ve got to pick yourselves up. You know you’re better than this.’ On day two, I picked it up from that last horrific round, and the third day, no one saw it coming. I’m not that good at trap, but I shot 91 (of 100) that day.”

The whole team banded together and shot remarkably well the last day of the tournament, Soignier says. When the Mississippi 4-H shotgun team finished, they were ranked eighth in the nation.

Having had the chance to coach several nationals teams from Mississippi 4-H, Hartzog says the summer 2019 team was as special as any he’s coached.

“The most memorable thing, for me, is just how good friends the four guys became. This can be typical among shooting people, and this team was very supportive of each other, and they still talk to each other,” he says.

Soignier emphasizes that Hartzog’s advice put him and his teammates just where they needed to be—focused on supporting each other as a team and working together through the best and worst times.

“Mr. Morgan said, ‘Be glad that you’re there for the experience. You’ve made it to nationals; now, enjoy it!’ Our success just emphasized that we have each other’s back,” Soignier says. “Maybe one person has a bad day, but we can stand in the clutch and turn in a good score.” Hartzog, an accountant with offices in Byram, has volunteered with 4-H S.A.F.E.T.Y. for more than 20 years. He first began serving when his own children were in 4-H, but even after they aged out of 4-H, Hartzog continued teaching young people the process and mechanics of how to shoot a shotgun well.

“Clay target shooting is not a thinking game, but it’s a planning-and-process game,” he explains. “You have to learn the mechanics, the foot positions, hold point, break point, etc. You can’t overthink and calculate; to get good, you’ve got to practice enough to make it automatic.

“It’s a great sport—one you can do your whole life.”

4-H S.A.F.E.T.Y. continues to recruit volunteer instructors. Contact your local county office at extension.msstate.edu/ county-offices to learn more.

MSU Extension Service
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