By Nick Simonson
Wrapping up the awards celebration for the local High School Clay Target League teams, it was natural to look back on the spring that was. With the various State Tournaments and Championships across North Dakota, Minnesota and 29 other states set for the coming weeks as part of the USA High School Clay Target League, the regular season’s end served as a reflection point and a chance to regroup and look forward, as young shooters celebrated their accomplishments and talked about their goals for the big event in just a few days.
From logging the year’s first rounds in snowbanks and temperatures in the high thirties or having to cancel early weeks in their entirety due to untimely blizzards, to the sudden shift toward spring and sunburned ears and sweat under the sun in mid eighty-degree heat, the 2018 season was memorable. The memories made, however, were more because of the dedicated shooters that turned out every week, focused on becoming better shotgunners and growing through their participation in the nation’s fastest-expanding and safest high school sport.
As part of the local teams’ fun day and awards presentation, the individual participants came up one by one to accept their letterman’s awards, pausing for handshakes with their coaches and photos from their waiting parents. There were the dedicated and experienced shooters in the group that at the season’s start were shoe-ins to claim their certificates, but then there were those kids who had just set foot on the trap range for the first time back in March. The latter found their form and their mark and poured it on in the final weeks of the season to see their scores jump into the high teens, and then the twenties, raising their league average up to and above the 19 required for a high school letter and a slot on the Varsity team at the State Tournament. Through their hard work and determination, they had found their place atop the growing ranks of the sport, and the beams of accomplishment from each of their faces guaranteed, as I read off their names, that they were officially entrenched alongside the old guard at the local club as those who would carry the torch of shooting sports into the future.
The challenges they overcame matched those undertaken by their coaches on their behalf before the season began. Negotiations with school officials in behind-the-scenes meetings for school recognition and support of the activity, and the establishment of a lettering program wasn’t always easy, but in the end full support came on the guarantee of safety in a sport that boasts a flawless record. Even the back-and-forth with the gun club board in preparation for the season came with some heated moments, as the program had to be presented not as a cost center but as a source of future shooters who would fill the houses every week, bring to capacity the summer youth program, and increase turnout at the local trap tournaments. Seeing the wise investment with their questions answered, the program was given their full support as well. At season’s end, it wasn’t just the kids who came out winners, as schools were able to boast the high conference and state finishes by both individual shooters and entire squads, and participation by the local teams’ competitors nearly doubled the normal early registration for the gun club’s first summer event.
Following the ceremony, the kids took part in a variety of shooting games coming at distances greater than the 16-yard line they had found themselves on this spring, and it was clear they enjoyed the challenge. Amidst good-natured ribbing between the coaches scoring the events and the young shooters came discussions of what to expect at the state tournament and what their goals were when they’d take the stand to represent their school. Everything from “shoot my best four rounds of the season” to “log a 95” to “put my team on the podium” came from the shooters looking forward to the event. It was evident that behind their enjoyment of the afternoon, serious business lay ahead for many of them looking to rise further in the ranks of the developing league.
And serious business it is. The expansion of programs like the USA High School Clay Target League and the National Archery in Schools Program (NASP) are a link to the next generation of not only shooters, but hunters of birds and big game alike. Their accomplishments in these leagues spill over to the field and bring in a new generation of safe, competent hunters with excellent marksmanship who will help carry a different torch – the one of conservation. For the local chapters of Delta Waterfowl, Pheasants Forever and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and dozens of other organizations that sponsor their local teams, these smiling kids will fill the spaces in the groups’ annual mentor hunts and youth workshops, and somewhere down the line, the ranks of their memberships as well. With that, no matter how things turn out in the next couple of weeks, this season can already be chalked up as win, not only for the participants, coaches, sponsors, schools and gun clubs, but for the future…of our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: Coaches shoot the hat of a participant who logged his first perfect round in the spring season of the ND CTL. Simonson Photo.)