Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 1.19.45 PMIf you’re a fan of prep sports, you might be surprised to learn which one is experiencing the fastest growth among Minnesota’s high school age youth. It’s not one of the traditional sports, like golf, tennis, skiing, gymnastics, or hockey. Nor is it one of the new and “hip” sports, like lacrosse. The fastest-growing, school-sponsored sport in Minnesota is clay target shooting.
It’s a test of concentration, hand-eye coordination, and shotgun handling. Its appeal and
skillset make it a rare sport where gender, size, and strength are not prerequisites for success.

If you’re a hunter, you’re familiar with the clay target games of trap and skeet. Though their rules and procedures differ, their common object is to break round clay disks fired at various angles and traveling at more than seventy miles per hour, shattering them with lead or steel pellets launched from a shotgun barrel. These clay target games are great wing-shooting practice for bird hunters, but they are also sports in their own right. There are literally thousands of trap and skeet shooting leagues nationwide, with local, state, national, and international competitions—even a chance for a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. Beyond the competitive opportunities, many shoot trap or skeet just for the pleasure of companionship and honing skills that benefit them as hunters. Like golf and tennis, clay target shooting is a lifetime sport.

More and more these days, the shooter sighting down the shotgun barrel and busting “clay pigeons” is a young woman or young man belonging to a team sponsored by their high school. Over 6,100 Minnesota youth participated in clay target leagues in 2014—a number that could approach 8,000 on teams from 380 schools statewide in 2015. Like their counterparts in hockey, football, gymnastics, or track, these athletes are also identified as Warriors, Patriots, Huskies, or whatever their school mascot might be. They earn athletic letters and have pep banners hung in school hallways to cheer them on—some will even find themselves at this spring sport’s state tournament in June.

Clay target teams draw members from a diverse student population, one reason the concept has captured the enthusiasm of high school athletic and activities directors. Another factor is being almost unique in placing young men and women on equal footing, literally competing side-by-side. Some come to the sport with little or perhaps no prior shooting or hunting experience. Some have neither the interest nor the aptitude to be varsity athletes in some of the traditional sports. Others are multi-sport athletes—“jocks,” in the common sports vernacular. Clay target league teams are a genuine melting pot for students of widely different backgrounds and interests.

One who has seen this firsthand is Mike Hammer, a retired Minnesota DNR conservation officer who has been a clay target league coach since the sport began in the area seven years ago. At that time, Brainerd, Pequot Lakes, and Pillager fielded a combined team, but numbers of interested students have exploded, and these three schools now all have their own teams. Pine River, Pierz, Crosby-Ironton, Little Falls, and Aitkin-McGregor have recently formed teams, too.

Teams generally don’t travel for competition during their conference season, but shoot at a “home” range and enter their scores into an electronic team management system to determine league standings. All teams from around the state gather in Alexandria for several days at the MSHSCTL State Championship. This event has grown to become the largest of its kind in the nation. Top teams, and the top one hundred individual shooters, compete in the Minnesota High School Clay Target League state tournament held in Prior Lake later in June. This event is also the only high school league sponsored tournament in the nation.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 1.19.50 PMOne of Hammer’s allies in the endeavor has been Brainerd High School activities director, Charlie Campbell. “One of the primary aims of our programming and that of the Minnesota State High School League, is to open doors and provide students with opportunities for participation,” says Campbell. “Clay target shooting is a niche activity that appeals to some students that our other programs may not. It’s also potentially a lifelong activity and one that helps connect students with their Minnesota outdoor heritage.” Something clearly appreciated by Campbell and officials at other competing schools is the league’s perfect safety record. This is certainly due in part to the requirement that all participants have completed a DNR-certified firearms safety course.

Austin Malone is an avid hunter and angler who gave up traditional team sports as a high school freshman to spend more time on his outdoor pursuits. But after working one summer at the Lakeshore Conservation Club’s shooting range near Gull Lake, Austin joined Brainerd’s clay target team, and was the team’s overall “high gun” his junior and senior years, and high gun in Brainerd’s entire conference as a senior. Attesting to the gender neutrality of the sport, the honors for second-highest scoring shooter in the conference in 2014 went to Brainerd’s Katlyn Sunde.

While some may downplay the value of sports in helping students feel a connection to their school and classmates, for participants like Malone the clay target league was a door opener. “Being a member of the team has helped me make new friends and feel more involved in school, besides making me a better shooter,” he says. Now a graduate of the program, Malone will join Hammer as an assistant coach. “I never thought of myself as a teacher or mentor before, but I enjoy seeing others try to improve, and I want to help if I can.”

Crucial support has come from the community, including significant financial support from the Brainerd Sports Boosters, many of whose members are hunters and shooters. The Brainerd, Pillager, and Pequot Lakes teams shoot at the Lakeshore Conservation Club’s range, and that group has donated the targets used by the team in their practices and competitions. A Twin City-based foundation unexpectedly made an anonymous contribution of $12,700 to fund a new clay target-throwing machine at Lakeshore to help in handling the additional shooting pressure from teams practicing there.

“Kids on Twin Cities area teams pay about $300 each to participate,” says Hammer. “We receive no funding from the school district, but through Brainerd Sports Boosters and other fund-raising we’re able to cut the cost per athlete to about half.” The exponential growth of the sport statewide has brought into focus the need to provide more clay target range capacity overall. The DNR has provided grants and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council—a panel of citizens and lawmakers that makes recommendations for spending earmarked state sales tax revenues for conservation purposes—recently allocated $2 million for trap range improvements at various locations around the state.

Other states are looking to Minnesota as a model of how to implement such a program, something clearly evident when athletic and activities directors met at their national conference in Maryland in January of 2015. None of which is probably on the minds of the rapidly growing number of Minnesota athletes competing on trap and skeet fields from April through June. They’re just happy to have this league of their own.