By Nick Simonson
In the heat of the June sun, the wave of noise sounding up and down the cement walkway at the Alexandria shooting park sounds surreal. It’s a constant roll of bap-bap-bap-boom-boom-bap-bap-bap as the surge of shotgun blasts, muffled by earplugs, rolls by a person’s vantage point during the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League (MN CTL) Championship, which in 2017 ran for 9 days to accommodate more than 9,000 of the state’s 11,400 participants.
For the athletes taking aim who come from small single- or double-house shooting facilities around the state, the event feels like walking into Yankee stadium for the first time after making it up from the minor leagues to be on some visiting baseball team. Overcoming the awe is half the challenge. Long after their particular day and the din of 1,000 other shooters on 20 houses passes, the crest carries on. That proverbial wave has become a national tsunami which started in the Midwest as the program has flowed from its home state into North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and more than 25 others from coast-to-coast. This spring, in addition to Alexandria, in places like Horace, N.D., Aberdeen, S.D. and Rome, Wisc., where the popularity of the program continues to grow, the thundering wave will sound again and the groundswell of participants will increase in those leagues’ respective state tournaments.
“We’ve received 75 inquiries to start new teams this year in North Dakota, so hopefully we can close on and add 10 to 20 of those teams,” said John Nelson, Vice President of the ND CTL, “we average around 30 percent growth, year over year, so we figure at least 1,200 participants for 2018, and the State Tournament will be growing to two days this year,” he added.
The excitement continues to roll throughout the Peace Garden State as more and more schools join the league and increase the momentum of the North Dakota State High School Clay Target League (ND CTL). Focused on safety, the league is far from a sink-or-swim program, assuring at least a 10-to-1 participant to coach ratio. Registration and annual courses on range safety and coaching skills are just some of the means of supporting the creation and management of a team. Beyond the click of the button on the organization’s website to start a team, a network of assistance is available with an email or a phone call to directors and staff who have the zero injuries record of the program front of mind, every season. In 17 years, with over 50,000 participants, not one has left a practice, league shoot or tournament with an injury of any kind.
Beyond its flawless safety record, the reason the league has been so successful in its expansion is its inclusiveness. Co-ed in nature and open to all young shooters who have completed Firearms Safety or Hunter’s Education courses, the league draws in a diverse crew of shooters – hunters, non-hunters, jocks, bandies, runners, speech kids, and more – and makes them a cohesive unit, blurring the lines of hallway cliques and fostering togetherness through a common bond of finding enjoyment and improvement in shooting sports. It is now, in January with most waters locked and sealed under a foot of ice, that the wave of the ND CTL Spring League begins to flow back from its off-season ebb and sign-up shooters of all stripes.
“Fifty five percent of the kids have never shot at a clay target before entering the league, and that includes hunters,” Nelson said of the ND CTL’s draw to non-shooting individuals, “four years ago our female population was four percent, this year it is 19 percent,” he stressed, as more and more young women take advantage of the co-ed activity.
Around the state, in the chill of an after-school evening five or ten kids are meeting with a volunteer coach – maybe a teacher, or parent – to get things started and found a team that they probably don’t realize at that moment, will grow into something incredible. In school cafeterias, libraries and auditoriums, a flood of middle schoolers and high schoolers are sitting down, side-by-side in front of the glow of a Power Point presentation to learn more about their school’s established team – maybe in its second or third year – and finding out how they can be a part of this wave that long after it crashes on the shoreline of their graduation day, the echo of the experience will carry on for decades to come.
There is no doubt, with additions of teams in Williston, Mandan, and other communities throughout North Dakota during this off-season, that the ND CTL will continue to grow. From the young person looking to just try the sport on for size, to the experienced shooter gunning for the top, the environment fostered on each team by the league suits everyone. Caring coaches work to build an upwelling of confidence in each shooter, who learns quickly that with a little practice and time on the range they can improve and succeed in this rapidly-growing sport. With those goals in mind, now is the time to let young shooters (or would-be-shooters) know about the program, or perhaps even help them start a program of their own, and be a part of the wave sweeping over North Dakota.
For more information on the North Dakota State High School Clay Target League, visit ndclaytarget.com
Simonson is a freelance outdoors journalist from Bismarck, N.D., where he serves as a coach for the Bismarck, Century, Legacy & Mandan High School CTL Teams and helped found the Marshall (MN) High School CTL team in 2013.