RED OAK — In the same tune as the popular phrase, "Mary, get your gun," one Red Oak shotgun marksman may be setting her sights on Ellis County shooting greatness.
It may be a play on the legend of Annie Oakley, but no female shooter in Red Oak — or Ferris for that matter — may more positioned to follow in the footsteps of one of America's finest trigger pullers.
On June 25, Mary Tibbs claimed a USA Youth Education in Shooting Sports Junior Clay Target National Championship at the National Shooting Complex in San Antonio, completing her transformation into one of the nation's best single-barreled shotgun specialists.
"It took hours and hours of shooting and rounds and rounds of practice," said Mary, just out of earshot of her mother and father, Lisa and Christopher James Tibbs. "We shoot year round. We shoot if it's snowing. We shoot when it's raining. The only time we stop shooting is if there's lightning."
Phoebe Ann Oakley, better known as Annie Oakley or "The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West," earned a reputation during the late 1800s as one of the century's best crack shots. Trained in the way of the gun from the tender age of 8, she delighted crowds by dead-eying cigarettes from her husband's lips with a single bullet or by repeatedly splitting a playing card edge-on and putting several more holes in it before it could touch the ground using a .22 caliber rifle at 90 feet.
She even earned the respect of Sitting Bull of the Lakota, who adorned her with the moniker "Little Sure Shot" — or Watanya Cicilla in the Siouan Native American dialect.
After 95 of 100 downed birds in San Antonio, though, Oakley may have to step aside.
Mary Tibbs just rode into town.
Unlike the flaxen-haired sharpshooter with a Cheshire grin, Mary, one of the founders of the Red Oak Shotgun Team, didn't grow up on the wide-open plains or in an environment where knowing how to handle a gun could be a matter of life and death. She also started much later than Oakley and most professional shooters at Mary's level do.
Six years later.
THREE FOR 25
Truth be told, she's only been shooting since 2015. Even more to the point, she was admittedly terrible the first time she took a Benelli Super Sport in her 15-year-old hands.
"It was one of the worst feelings, not meeting your own personal expectations," Mary said with a chuckle. "It was awful. I hated it. When I first started shooting skeet, I would hit three or four out of 25 birds. There were a few months at the beginning that I just couldn't shoot skeet, would refuse to do so and stick to shooting trap."
In shotgun shooting sports, there are three main events shot in the United States, trap, skeet and sporting clays. While there are different variations of trap and skeet, such as international and double, they are scored the same way.
Each round of trap and skeet has 25 birds (targets), requiring athletes to shoot four rounds of each in a regular competition. Mary said some tournaments, though, will either do more or less.
Each bird broken earns one point and the four rounds are added at the end. For example, if an athlete shoots a 22, 24, 23 and 25, the final tally is 94. In sporting clays, however, there are usually 10 to 12 stations consisting of four to five pairs of birds at each station with a course total of 100 birds.
Mary also stated that the difficulty increases with less experience, noting most shooters in her competitive class start handling shotguns as early as 9 years old and that the learning curve when starting late is steep, especially after expectations fade and disappointment becomes a reality.
"Almost every person I shoot with started when they were 9 or 10 years old and some of them were younger," Mary noted, pausing to craft her words correctly. "The problem is, when you start late, some of those shooters get discouraged if they're not making the advances they want to make and they see people at their level that have been shooting for years do well. It's hard. Some of them give up and don't keep trying."
"She loved to shoot trap at first and she was better at that than skeet, but I knew she was going to have to shoot all three events in tournaments," Christopher James added, stepping beside his daughter and placing an arm around her shoulders. "We kept doing it until she got better at it. She'd stay at the range until the sun went down and sometimes later if there were lights. It's just been a natural progression that's really been really fun to watch."
In little more than two years, her father noted, his youngest daughter has gone from barely hitting the broad side of a barn to finishing only five birds away from a perfect score in San Antonio.
In the span of two years, Mary's captured Texas State Scholastic Clay Target Program and Texas YESS State Championships in 2016 and an SCTP National Lower Midwest regional championship in 2017.
She's also placed first in skeet, trap and sporting clays in the June 2016 International Scholastic Clay Target Program National Lower Midwest Regional junior varsity Ladies Division title and a varsity Youth Target Foundation State Championship in 2017. Mary received a High Over All designation, meaning she earned the top position in all three styles, in both competitions.
FOLLOWING THE BLOODLINE
Though are four parts to the Tibbs family — Christopher James, Lisa, Mary and her older siblings Linsday and Christopher Lee — only two made the shotgun an extension of their own bodies. The elder Chris was a football player but found the passion for shooting after leaving Ennis High School in his junior year and joining the rifle team at San Marcos Military Academy.
The ability to shoot, though, runs deep. So deep, Christopher James said, that's it's in Mary's blood.
"She's just a natural at it. She picked it up and more importantly, she enjoys it," he said. "I can remember her begging me to go back to the range only hours after we put the guns down for the night," he said. "It's more than her being good, though. Every day we'd come home, without fail, I'd get a 'Dad, let's go shoot' from her. She just enjoyed it so much that it helped her pick it up fast. Two years ago, she was hitting three or four birds per 25 and now she's five away from 100. She's put in the hard work and it's paid off."
He said the blend of DNA and blue-collar toil created something that, when she started, he never saw coming. Someone that could best him in the art of the shotgun.
Christopher James said if someone handed both he and his daughter a shotgun, there would be a clear winner in most cases.
"It's her hands down. I can't beat her any more, most of the time," he continued. "It was a while back, but in trap league, we bet $5 that I could beat her that night and I beat her by one bird. I was pretty proud of myself because I got $5."
That $5 bill now hangs in the Tibbs' house, with the date and the words "I beat Mary in trap" from a wall next to her picture for all who care to see.
Though the cement of Mary's Ellis County legacy may be moments away from drying, 48 months ago a life-sized obstacle stood firmly between her and the national championships she'd acquire — the skeet.
"It's not that skeet is harder than trap. It's more intimidating," Mary said. "Trap is what beginners usually start on, so it's easier to pick up. It was where I was comfortable. Skeet's easier to master once you learn the birds because the targets are the same but in trap, the machine moves side to side and you don't know where the birds are coming from."
She said trap shooting, while easier to earn proficiency, pales in comparison to the unpredictable nature of skeet shooting. In the latter, targets are mechanically flung into the air from two fixed stations at upwards of 45 MPH and between 800 to 1800 revolutions per minute from a variety of angles.
It's fast enough to make even the most veteran shooter miscalculate, misfire or let seeds of doubt plant themselves in the back of the strongest minds.
"I never thought I'd be where I am right now," Mary said. "I was so discouraged the first time I went out. One of the owners of one of the organizations we were shooting with at the time was teaching us all the rules, but I didn't hit a single target that day. I struggled tremendously and was worried I was not where I belonged. It was awful. I was thinking I was going nowhere."
But then, like a bolt of lightning or from of her Syren Tempio Sporting, the switch clicked and the lightbulb turned on.
"During the season last year was when I really started getting good and on a competitive level," she continued, a wry smile spreading across the edges of her alabaster features. "After a couple of our local shoots, I started winning all the events in my division. I'd have people joking around and saying 'Dang Mary, you're going to break your neck with all those medals.' That's when I started noticing that I'm pretty good at this."
THE OL' COLLEGE TRY
The mental aspect of shooting, Mary said, may have been the greatest reason for her entry into the hallowed halls of Texas Tech University, where she plans to pursue a degree in occupational therapy to work with special needs children and away from the calls of Aggieland.
It also helped her receive large sums of tuition assistance academically and some valuable helpers athletically.
She was one of 105 student-athletes to receive a $1,000 scholarship from the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation Scholarship Program. Her finish in the top quartile of Red Oak's 2017 graduating class — around 12 or 13 percent — helped earn more.
"Shooting will help me persevere through the challenges I'll face in college. It's also helped me finish high school where I did and graduate with 41 college hours," Mary said. "It's because of the determination I had to have with shooting and failing so much in the beginning. It's given me a good drive for success and it's something that helps me in everything that I do."
She noted that drive and passion is accessible to everyone, including the children of Avalon, Life Waxahachie, Maypearl, Midlothian, Ovilla, Palmer, Red Oak and Waxahachie High Schools — any Ellis County gun enthusiast willing to put in the long office hours to master a sport that is growing with every waking moment.
With dreams of occupational therapy in the forefront, she said she rarely thinks about making shooting a professional career. The door, though, is always open.
"I've never thought about competing on the professional level until pretty recently," Mary mused. "I've always seen myself being done with school in five years and starting a career. I'm taking it step by step but if I'm offered the opportunity, then heck yeah I'll take it. If not, I'll keep shooting competitively for as long as I can hold up a shotgun."
Somewhere from beyond the grave, Oakley must have stopped, looked up and cracked a smile before loading another round into her .22 caliber rifle and listening to Mary's footsteps padding softly after her.
Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI