Eagles build premier program, take home SCISA state title again

Pictured from left, Richard Winn shooting team director Scott Clyburn with the first place team of Coach Randy Wilkes, Charlie Bonds, JT Wilkes, Caleb Geddens, and third place finishers Campbell Sims, Connor Little, Ben Clowney, Coach Brian Bonds and Coach John Lewis. | Contributed

WINNSBORO – Richard Winn Academy’s sporting clay team once again beat the odds and raised the bar(rel) higher, this time at the Governor’s Cup Youth Sporting Clay Open in Edgefield.

The Governor’s Cup not only is the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)’s final event of the year, but it also serves as the state championship for the South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA), of which Richard Winn is a member.

For the third time in as many years, an Eagle team topped the podium at the end of the day.

After falling short of the SCISA title last season, the three-member squad of Charlie Bonds, JT Wilkes, and Aaron Geddens took the top prize this year.

Under the leadership of Scott Clyburn, Richard Winn Academy (RWA) has fielded a sporting clay shooting team since 2017 when he introduced the sport at RWA. During those six years, the interest in the sport has grown, and the skill level of the young shooters and the competition has gotten stronger.

Clyburn started prepping the JV and senior teams and coaches following Christmas break with a motivational pep talk. He placed two championship rings on the table and told them that they had the opportunity to do something that less than 1% of high school students get to do – win a state championship.

“I told them we were the team to beat,” Clyburn said. “It’s ours and they needed to rise up and seize the opportunity.”

Just three months later, Clyburn and the Eagles had the receipts in hand.

The state championship team consists of two sophomores and a freshmen who have been squad teammates for the past three years under the coaching of Randy Wilkes. Typically this squad shoots in the JV division due to their age, but they were chosen to move up to the senior varsity division to be able to compete for the SCISA championship.

 “I just told them to remain calm and enjoy themselves. I never doubted for one minute that they could pull it off,” Randy Wilkes said. “These three just work well together and help each other.”

A five year veteran of the winning squad, Bonds and his two teammates said they felt confident of their individual and squad skills prior to the championship event. After all, they finished second in the SCISA championship in 2022.

“We have placed first three times, second four times, and third place twice,” Bonds said. “I’d say there was a little more pressure being the front runners with a good chance to win since we came in as runners up last year. The anticipation of not knowing where we stood all day was hard, but (not knowing) made it more exciting in the end.”

Bonds, Wilkes, and Geddens stood atop the podium, and Coach Brian Bonds’ squad of Connor Little, Ben Clowney, and Campbell Sims finished in third place. Wilson Hall School of Sumter finished as the second place team.

“I never thought when I first started out on the Richard Winn Shooting Team as a seventh grader that my squad and I would end up winning the SCISA State Championship,” Geddens said. “Going into this shoot, I remained calm and felt confident that our squad would take home the win.”

When scores were tallied, Wilkes and Little were tied for HOA (High Over All). They competed in a shoot off to determine the winner.

“When I heard that I had to compete with Connor, I was a little nervous because I knew it was going to be tough,” Wilkes said. “It’s hard to stay calm and shoot when you know what’s on the line.”

Wilkes, who began competing on RWA’s youth team as a fifth grader, is now a freshman. While he claimed the HOA award after winning the shoot off, Little didn’t leave empty-handed. He was awarded a $2,500 scholarship as the top senior shooter.

Though excited that he was in a position to win the HOA, Little remarked on his disappointment with the outcome.

“I was at least glad that it (the loss) was to a teammate and a family member.”

News of being named as the scholarship recipient, he said, helped ease the pain of losing in the shoot off.

With boys teams finishing in first and third in the state and a senior girls squad finishing fourth, Clyburn and the Eagles know the hard work it’s taken to build a solid, competitive program. 

This year’s team consists of 10 coaches and 26 shooters, many of whom compete on other middle school and varsity teams at Richard Winn. They find time to practice at least once a week and travel around the state early on Saturday mornings to compete in sporting clay events.

“This is an amazing feat by any team,” Clyburn said, “and it shows you the dedication, time, energy, and support our team has received from the school, the administration, the athletic department, our parents, our sponsors, and our shooters.”

“RWA as a whole really stands out at these events, not only by getting on the podium regularly, but by appearance, conduct, and respectfulness,” squad coach Randy Wilkes said. “The fellowship after our tailgates is unlike any other sport.”

“This is an amazing group of young folks,” Clyburn said, “and they continue to build what I feel is one of the premier shooting programs of South Carolina.”

Richard Winn’s younger shooters are already making a name for themselves as well. The team of Hoffman Sharpe, TJ Knight, and Dylan Albert took the top award as Middle School champions with Sharpe winning the individual HOA.

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