By Nick Simonson
While many school sports struggled coming out of the pandemic in 2021, the USA High School Clay Target League (USA CTL) and its North Dakota State High School Clay Target League (ND CTL) affiliate were back on track, providing shooting sports activities for thousands of students across the country and the Roughrider State. This year, with most of the restrictions behind them, a surge of students in grades 6-12 across the country is expected to bring both leagues’ participation levels to unseen highs, according to USA CTL Operations Manager Josh Kroells.
“It was a great rebound from after 2020, after being definitely down with Covid stuff. During 2021 throughout the country, we had almost 27,500 student-athletes participate, and that was from just over 1,300 teams in 34 states…it was great growth, and I can see that continuing,” Kroells relates.
Now in its 21st season, the USA CTL program – which began with just three schools and thirty participants in the Minneapolis metro area in 2001 – is likely to draw an estimated 40,000 students in 2022 on 1,500 teams in 38 states. Along with expanding programs at the college level, the national organization has its eyes set on having more than 100,000 participants from grade six on up to college seniors by the 2025 season. As part of that growth, the ND CTL looks to get back on its pre-pandemic trajectory in 2022, with more teams joining the competition in the Peace Garden State, and the caliber of shooters involved continuing to improve.
“Just for North Dakota [in 2021] we had 67 teams and just over 1,800 kids and that was up from 58 teams and 1,600 kids going back to 2019. Competition is getting better and better, and I think there’s a few things behind that. Just number one is the sheer number of participants, from the league growing in North Dakota back in 2016 when we had roughly 500 kids and 23 teams to where we are today. We’ve got more kids practicing and the gun clubs are opening up more, they’re being more flexible and they’re realizing this is the future of our gun club and they’re opening up more for practice,” Kroells states, adding that it now takes trap totals of 199 or 200 to be in the mix for an individual title at the USA CTL National Championship event each July in Michigan.
The participation in the various clay target leagues throughout the country bodes well for hunting, fishing and conservation as well. First by the sheer number of non-hunting student-athletes it introduces to shotgun sports that eventually find their way to the field, and second by the amount of funds raised through excise taxes on ammunition, firearms and shooting-sports related purchases that fall under the Pittman-Robertson Act. From that federal program, money generated from those sales to teams and participants go directly to conservation programs throughout the U.S., improving habitat and resources for fish, huntable game and watchable wildlife. According to estimates kept by USA CTL, more than $12 million worth of these conservation excise taxes have been generated by its high school and college leagues since 2008. Whether on a larger scale or an individual level, the program pays off.
“When it comes to helping [these participants] become better upland or waterfowl hunters, that mindset of safety is there, the kids are used to handling the firearms around other people, doing it in a safe manner. And it helps when they’re chasing pheasants, when they’ve got a buddy next to them to make sure they know their zone of fire or when they’re sitting in a waterfowl blind, just being more successful that way. Obviously, they’re going to be more successful targeting those birds, because they’ve been practicing at the trap range,” Kroells explains.
Sign-up for existing high school and college teams is open and continuing through Mar. 21 at ndclaytarget.com and usaclaytarget.com. New teams can be formed at schools where they currently don’t exist by logging on to ndclaytarget.com and clicking on the “Start a Team” tab at the right side of the homepage.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors and a volunteer coach and organizer for the six Bismarck-Mandan area high school clay target league teams.
Featured Photo: Student-athletes participating in the North Dakota State High School Clay Target League take aim on the trap range at Capital City Sporting Clays near Bismarck, N.D. Simonson Photo.