So, the second weekend of May has come and gone, and with it Nationals for Production, Single Stack, Revolver, and Limited 10.
First, the match was Mother’s Day weekend. You can say it’s a greeting card holiday sure, but this was just such an unforced error. A week earlier or a week later wouldn’t have worked? You don’t schedule matches on the weekend of major holidays if you can avoid it, and minor ones should be avoided where possible.
Of course, the problem is they have to find three different weeks on the calendar for three different Nationals this year. If there was just one Nationals, the way there’s just one World Shoot and everyone picks their division and shoots heads up, presumably it would be easier to schedule them around holidays. (It would also allow people to actually shoot together more, instead of maximizing the opportunities for one person to win multiple titles. I have some friends shooting High Cap Nationals, and considered putting a dot on one of my Tanfoglios to shoot with them. But alas, Carry Optics, isn’t in that Nationals, it’s in the other one.)
And then there’s the issue that it just started getting warm enough to practice in most of the country, and asking folks to be trained up to contest the biggest title of the year in the middle of spring is not a great idea. Is it any surprise that the two closest contenders are both from desert areas where training up was much more reasonable?
Yes, I know that Single Stack Nationals has always been in the spring. While Single Stack is a niche division, there are shooters that invest heavily in competing in it, and it was never a good thing to leave them with nothing but their state match to work towards all summer. (That’s the boat I’m in now too. The Carolina Classic here in NC is the only other big match of the calendar, four months away.)
Treating Single Stack like a real division and having them shoot with all the other divisions at the Nine Days of Nationals in 2018 was a marked improvement. Going back to a spring Nationals for them and throwing in Production is a step backward. And yes, I feel the same way about matches like Area 6 being in the spring as well. (As an aside, when was the last time two years in a row had anything close to a similar Nationals schedule? Why the need to keep erratically changing it up as though the ideal formula is a matter of trial and error?)
This was my first trip to the CMP range in Talladega, and I have to say it’s not bad at all. The bays are large, and split fairly well in three zones. I’ve heard that in return for USPSA hosting so many matches there, the option is on the table to build another set of bays, to bring the whole range up to being able to host something like a 24 stage match to rival the bigger Nationals in recent memory. I certainly think a Nationals schedule of 8 stages per day for 3 days, assuming staff reset (more on that later) is completely reasonable and would make for a good Nationals.
The way the actual space was used is a mixed bag. Having chrono, the test fire bay, and the vendor area all on one big stage worked reasonably well. That said, the test fire bay was just steel targets. If I had an optic I was trying to zero due to changing dots or getting banged up on the way, I’m not sure it would have been ideal. Also, one porta john for every two or three stages is not enough.
Dinner and awards were a debacle, as has been covered elsewhere. I had been warned that the banquet food was bad by friends who were there for last year’s Single Stack Nationals, so when I saw the spread I was impressed. The food was good! But this time, they had quality, but not enough quantity and about half the attendees got nothing to eat. Perhaps by the fall they can get a handle on both dimensions of a good meal.
Rather than setting up the awards where everyone on the balcony could see, they used the little platform that I suppose was built for the purpose. The end result was that about 20% of the attendees could see anything.
And then the walking of the prize table was another unforced error. Rather than calling folks into the building in groups (“Production 1-20, go inside.”, “Limited 10 20-40, head in.”) they just told everyone to go inside and line up. Unfortunately the space allowed for about three people to stand abreast, and we were supposed to form four different lines for four different divisions. If this were the first time that this crew were running a match, or a new administration had just started, I suppose this kind of issue could be excused. But they literally do three or more Nationals every single year. How is this not a solved problem with a boring process to be followed?
The stages this year were, for the most part, fairly good and better than the Nationals stages in recent memory. A friend told me that Jake Martens, who apparently designed the stages, told him that he borrowed heavily from 2013-era Extreme Euro Open stage designs. (For the record, I think there’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration and even basically copying good stages. Nationals stages should represent the best our sport has to offer.)
The challenges were varied, and generally tested a good range of skills, although the shot difficulty was generally easy. Stage 4 is a good example of a stage that would be improved by deleting a third to half the targets in each array; that retains the need to navigate the shooting area while putting a greater emphasis on shooting good points and less on raw splits.
I’m one of those people that thinks that testing the core stand-and-shoot skills at a Nationals isn’t a bad thing, including one-handed shooting. There was one stage that featured each of strong and weak hand only, which was good to see.
There were a few stages like 6 and 18 where the shooting area seemed out of proportion to the actual targets, so that the distances between shooting positions didn’t leave much to do except shoot flatfooted at the clusters of targets and then sprint to the next position. Tightening up the shooting area and opening up the angles on targets would have been a real improvement.
The places that included two stages in one bay were invariably the places that backups occurred, primarily because of the lack of staff reset. With the squad split and six of the twelve members of the squad either the shooter, on deck, or just having shot, there were not many hands to reset.
Overall, I think the main issue with the stages is that they were insufficiently challenging in the sense that they didn’t do enough to separate the top shooters. In Production, going into the last day, Mason Lane and JJ were in a dead heat, 0.1 match points apart. By the end of the match, it was Nils and JJ that were 0.6 match points apart, making the margin of victory 0.03%.
That is clear evidence that the stages did not do enough to separate the best shooters. If you believe, as I do, that the primary purpose of the National Championship is to distinguish the best shooter in the country that year, then this match is clearly a failure. If the stages need to be harder and that makes shooting Nationals as a B-class shooter punishing and unpleasant, so be it. There are plenty of matches for them; this one is supposed to be special.
As I understand it, this is the first time since 2014 that the staff for the match also got to shoot it, which is hard to believe, but good that it’s been rectified. Competitors who know the rules make better ROs than folks that don’t shoot a match and just run a timer, and competitors self-evidently want to shoot the match to be a part of it, not just observe. If you make people choose, they’ll just pay their match fee and you’ll be left with low-quality officiating, as we saw in the 2018-2020 years in Frostproof.
On the whole, I would say the staff was definitely better this year than 2019, the last year I shot Nationals, which deserves recognition. But it still has a way to go.
The most conspicuous example of this is the fact that the Production National Champion was directly effected by staff that did not keep the steel on their stage calibrated. When JJ shot a popper and then lost calibration, obviously that would have changed the outcome for the match to the tune of 15 match points. The fact that Ashley Rheuark, two squads earlier on the Ladies Super Squad, had a calibration call on that same popper should have been the end of it. But even after JJ shot it, they didn’t fix it until yet another shooter on the Super Squad had to call for calibration on it.
When you are running a stage, one of your main priorities is to keep the stage moving. If there’s a scoring call, pull the target, call the rangemaster, and run the next shooter. But with calibration, that can’t happen. The stage grinds to a halt until a guy on an ATV can come peer at the mark in the paint and then amble back to the shooting area and shoot the piece of steel. If for no other reason than match flow, keeping your steel calibrated is a big deal when running a stage at any Level 2 or above match. That is, of course, to say nothing of actually swinging the outcome of the match.
Coming off the last three big matches I shot being the NC Section, SC Section, and Area 6, I will admit that being told to grab some pasters and paint to reset was strange, although I can’t say it’s surprising. But it was also totally unnecessary. On most stages, the timer and tablet ROs walked the targets one-by-one anyway, and one or two people following behind them could easily have pasted the targets as fast as they were scored.
The better stages with movers already had a staff member assigned to either personally reset the mover or verify the competitor had done it correctly, which results in 95% as much work as just doing it yourself anyway. The idea that competitors at a national championship are anywhere near each others targets, with the opportunity to prematurely paste a hole and create a mike, is absurd.
That’s not to mention the fact that a reshoot due to improper reset is just as bad as having a stage completely blocked waiting for calibration, since it’s time you can’t get back. Eliminating even a few of those on each stage by having the same people reset the movers and paste the targets the same way every time is so obvious as a solution it’s hard to see why it’s only currently done at a handful of matches here in the southeast. (Notably, of course, the World Shoot also operates this way.)
My individual shooting was a rollercoaster. I started off Day 1 with two stages that put my score right in the mix with the Super Squad, which was a good feeling. Seeing that, I told myself not to push to overperform or at the same time fall back and coast through the match. Even picking up a Mike/No Shoot on Stage 3 didn’t ruffle me too bad.
Going into the match, I had basically no expectations, having only shot Area 6 and South Carolina in the two months leading up to the match, and having only limited practice. On a few stages like 4, 8 and 17, I decided to just let the speed I was just starting to develop for the year all hang out. The points were crap, but it was fun to just run the gun harder than I had in the past, and actually energized me to practice more and capture the gains that I can see around the corner with what I’m doing. (Obviously, Nationals is usually an inspiration going into the offseason for work to pick up in the spring. In this case, I guess I should count myself lucky that I can start working on those things immediately…?)
While the match was going on, I found myself thinking that the stages like 4 where I was shooting as fast as I could with no real regard for points would be good footage even if they were bad scores. But actually reviewing the video, I’m not actually shooting as fast as it felt in the moment; the feeling of speed, as always, came from shooting before you’re really ready, and so it really is a feeling of unpreparedness that just feels like speed. Instead, it’s the stages like 1 and 14 where I shot 3-5 charlies total and felt in complete control. In a shock to no one, although gripping the gun better may let me blast faster, the real reward is having the gun track better and shooting better points.
And then on day 3, for whatever reason, I just could not put things together. Being able to perform consistently over multiple days is a key skill of National and World level competition, and that was a real weakness here for me. I was unfocused the entire day, including Stage 19 where a malfunctioning GoPro completely distracted me and I just shot on instinct, picking up a Delta and a Mike.
Overall, my placement and percentage were basically in the same place as Nationals in 2019, meaning I haven’t made up much ground but I haven’t really lost any either. A number of stages, particularly 1, 6, and 14 give me a lot of hope that I have the pace to place mid-Super Squad, and those aren’t flukes since I do not feel like those stages were just lucky runs.
More annoying than the scored Mikes were the many fumbled reloads, for no reason at all except lack of practice and relying on hope. That will be a big point of practice going into this season.
As a whole, the match was better than past years Nationals and shows promise for further improvement. The stages were a step in the right direction and the venue was definitely preferable to Frostproof. It’s just hard to feel too good about the match because of the 1-2 punch of it being at the beginning of the season, and the lack of staff reset.