ELEANOR, W.Va. -- Noah Barker has tried a lot of sports -- baseball, basketball, soccer -- but he's not yet found one that challenges him the way shooting does.
Three times a week, the 15-year-old goes to the shooting range, sets up his equipment, dons a stiff leather jacket, pulls on a padded glove, picks up a rifle and fires little bullets at little targets.
He hits more than he misses. A lot more, in fact -- enough to finish atop his age class in national competition. Enough, perhaps, to ultimately land him on a college rifle team or even on the U.S. Olympic Team.
"I'd like to see where this can take me," said Barker, a Red House resident and member of the Putnam County Gun Club Junior Smallbore Team.
In July, he will accompany his teammates to Camp Perry, Ohio, for the National Smallbore Rifle Championships. Last year, shooting in the Sub-Junior category, he surprised a lot of folks by winning several individual prone-position matches, capturing High Sub-Junior honors for aggregate score, and advancing his NRA shooter rating from Marksman to Expert.
"Noah advanced very quickly," said Smallbore Team coach Bill Shank. "In going from Marksman to Expert, Noah skipped completely over the Sharpshooter rating."
Barker joined the team in November 2009 after he read a newspaper article about it. Though he'd been shooting since age 5 and had been into hunting for almost that long, he was willing to exchange his old shooting habits for new ones.
"We started him with an upgraded rifle because of his size and his experience, but that was about the only break he got," Shank said. "We started him off like we do all the kids -- resting the rifle on sandbags -- and went from there with the basics."
One thing that immediately caught Shank's eye was how eager Barker was to practice.
"We practice three days a week, and Noah was here three days a week," Shank said.
By the time July of 2010 rolled around, Shank deemed Barker ready to compete in the prone events at Camp Perry. He was and he wasn't.
"It was intimidating and nerve-wracking," Barker recalled. "I shot poorly on the first day, but my scores got a little better as time went along. I gained experience that I was able to call on [in 2011]."
Last year, armed with an Olympic-grade rifle and another year's worth of practice and match experience, Barker returned to Camp Perry far less wide-eyed and ready to compete.
"I definitely shot better than I did the year before," he said.
Barker and teammate Natalie Asbury practically owned the Sub-Junior category in the prone events.