Wharton High is home to two of riflerys sharpest shooters, and both have Olympic aspirations.

When Matt Sanchez signed his college athletic scholarship papers with West Virginia University on Nov. 14, it didn’t make the nightly sports news, but it was a big deal.

It was as big as a high school football player signing a college scholarship to compete at Alabama or Ohio State. Or a basketball player signing with Kentucky or Duke.

It was history.

Sanchez and his Wharton teammate, Ben Salas, who signed with North Carolina State University in Raleigh, are believed to be the first high school kids in Tampa Bay to sign scholarships for rifle, a varsity college and Olympic sport.

While Salas is going to join a young, growing riflery program, Sanchez will be joining arguably the best shooting school in the country.

The Mountaineers have won 19 NCAA national team championships, producing 25 individual NCAA championships, 65 All-Americans and 13 Olympians.

Sanchez hopes to No. 14.

Sanchez has already made a name for himself in the world of Olympic-style shooting.

At just 17 years old, the Heritage Isles resident has spent the last year traveling the world to compete in World Cups and World Championship competitions as a member of the USA Shooting national team. Because of his age, Sanchez currently is part of the junior national team.

“Most recently, I competed in September in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the World Cup,” says Sanchez, “and I’ve also been to Germany and Austria four times each, and Switzerland, Korea and China.”

Sanchez participates in two types of competitions. One is smallbore, which is shooting a .22 caliber rifle in three positions — standing, kneeling and prone. 

The other is shooting an air rifle, which is a type of pellet gun, taking 60 shots while standing.

Jayme Shipley, who represented the U.S. in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympic games, placing sixth in the 2000 Olympics in the women’s air rifle competition, is Sanchez’s coach. A resident of Naples, she coaches a handful of high school aged precision shooters throughout the state, and Sanchez is one of her best students.

In the smallbore event, he participated in the first round of Olympic Trials in October, where he finished in 11th place. However, a second round of competition will be held next spring “to make sure they don’t get someone who just has one good day,” Shipley says.

Only two men will make it onto the Olympic team in each event, but Shipley says Sanchez is currently in contention, and his chances are probably better to make the team in the air rifle event, where he often shoots scores that rank well among not just his teammates on the juniors, but also among the adult men.

Those trials begin December 6 at the Olympic Training Center in  Colorado Springs, CO, with a second portion of competition happening in February.

Shooting has been an event in the Olympics since the first modern games in 1896. In fact, the first medal given out at every Olympics is in shooting.

“When I first started working with Matt almost 5 years ago, we looked at the 2024 Olympics as a goal,” says Shipley. “But, he’s excelled so fast that he has a really good chance with this one.”

* * *

Incredibly, when Sanchez attends the Olympic Trials for air rifle, he won’t be the only Wharton High senior to compete.

Salas, a 17-year-old Live Oak Preserve resident, will compete as well.

While Salas hasn’t made the national team and didn’t compete in the Olympic trials for smallbore, he also trains with Shipley and also has his eyes on an Olympic prize someday.

Salas has only been shooting precision rifle since last October, but has progressed quickly enough to earn the opportunity to compete in the Olympic trials for air rifle. 

Ben Salas (left) and Matt Sanchez

A relative newcomer, Salas’ growth as a shooter has been accelerated in part due to working alongside Sanchez, a veteran of the sport.

Sanchez began shooting with his dad when he was only 10 years old. The family lived in Orlando and went to a rifle club on weekends, just for fun. Sanchez entered a few competitions at the club, noticing that others showed up in some “weird” gear. He says he started to realize there were things he could improve on and excel at, so he started getting his own gear and working on his technique.

“I started to win little competitions, which led to state championships,” he says. “Being able to win stuff really piqued my interest.”

At 13, Sanchez began to take the sport seriously. In 2017, his dad’s job change brought him to Wharton for the beginning of his sophomore year.

“When I got here, I saw they had a rifle team in NJROTC,” says Sanchez, referring to the high school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. “It gave me more time to shoot during school and made things a lot easier, training-wise.”

His presence has transformed the school’s program.

“Matt has been a mentor to our whole team,” says Chief Wayne Boknevitz, a Naval sciences instructor who also coaches the school’s rifle teams. “He got our whole precision team up and running and has elevated the entire marksmanship team.”

Boknevitz says the school previously had “sporter” level rifle teams, but not “precision” level. Sanchez worked with Boknevitz to get a team together, recruiting other students to invest in the expensive gear, while Boknevitz borrowed guns from another school.

“Matt took time from his own practice to help everyone else with form and micro-adjustments to the guns,” explains Boknevitz. “The knowledge he shared allowed us to go to Navy nationals last year.”

* * *

Unlike Sanchez, Salas was first an NJROTC cadet, interested in pursuing a military career. He joined the school’s rifle team for fun. On the sporter team, Salas set a school record, and Boknevitz encouraged him to join the school’s new precision team.

At first Salas was reluctant – he says his parents weren’t sure they wanted to spend the money on gear – but Sanchez encouraged him, explaining that precision shooting is a sport that can actually lead to a scholarship at a university. Salas says at that point, his parents were in.

“I was hoping to get into a Division II school, but my personal records kept going up very fast in a very short period of time,” says Salas.

He says it was earlier this year when he saw how well he was placing around peers who have been shooting much longer than him and wanted to take it a step further.

“I realized I could probably make the Olympics if I practice hard enough,” he says. “I’m really shooting for 2024.”

Salas is happy to give a lot of the credit to Sanchez.

“Before he came to our school there was no precision team, so if he had gone to another school, I would have stayed on the sporter team and all of this never would have happened,” Salas says. 

For the past year, the pair have trained together before and after school at Wharton using paper targets, and at home using highly sensitive Olympic-style electronic targets. 

They travel once or twice a month to a specialized range – of which there are very few in the state and none locally – typically going to one in south Hollywood in South Florida, where they spend seven or eight hours a day practicing their sport with Shipley.

“The two of them together are great friends and they are great training partners,” says Shipley. “They push each other. Plus, they’re both a joy to be around, just the funniest kids ever.”

* * *

While their eyes may be temporarily set on the Olympic prize as the Trials draw near, both boys say their more immediate goal has been getting a prized college scholarship.

“Most guys who make the (Olympic) team are in their 20s and some top shooters are in their mid-30s, so you can do it for a long time and have a long career,” explains Shipley. “When they’re so young, my goal as a coach is to get them into school with a scholarship, because school is expensive, and the sport is expensive.”

Both Wildcats hit the bullseye when it came to receiving scholarships.

Sanchez can play a hand in restoring WVU to the top of the college ranks. The Mountaineers 19 titles is No. 1 all-time, but they haven’t won one since capturing their fifth straight title 2017.

Salas will follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, who played football at NC State. He will be a big part of getting the Wolfpack on the college rifle map.

“At first, the program was just a club,” Ben says. “But, they just got a new coach and she’s really stepping up and making the program bigger and proving that NC State is a good shooting school. I’m really happy to go there and help them.”

There are only 30 universities that give scholarships in shooting, but none in Florida, although Shipley says USF used to have one of the best shooting teams in the country, with three Olympians.

Boknevitz says that to his knowledge, it’s the first time in Hillsborough County that any student has been signed to an NCAA shooting team and participated in signing day, taking pride that Wharton had not one, but two, students sign.

One way or another, both Wildcats have bright futures.

“I’m really excited for the Olympic trials, because I’ve seen what scores I can put up if I shoot my best,” Salas says. “But I’m more excited for college because I know that’s a guarantee.”

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