School-sanctioned programs aimed at steering students toward the shooting sports are gaining ground in districts across the United States. Minnesota is a hotbed of activity, thanks in part to the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League (MSHSCTL). More than 10,000 students from 319 high school teams participated in the league’s 2016 spring season—the highest number so far.

More than 7,000 shooters attended the state’s high school trap shooting championship. Co-presented and sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League, the event is touted as the world’s largest trap tournament.

Such benchmarks are impressive considering the league started in 2001 with just three teams, a trio of schools and 30 athletes.

National Phenomenon

Minnesota’s program isn’t alone. It is an affiliate of the USA High School Clay Target League, which supports school-sanctioned shooting sports for sixth through 12 graders who have completed firearms safety certification.

On the national front, the USA league expanded to 11 states in 2016, including Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In all, it reaches 13,000 students and 446 high school teams guided by more than 3,000 coaches and volunteers.

“The Minnesota league continues to be the fastest-growing activity in the state’s schools,” says Jim Sable, executive director of the MSHSCTL. “Such high participation shows the continued demand for alternative high school activities related to Minnesota’s longstanding outdoor traditions.”

A New Appeal

Part of the attraction, Sable says, is the sport’s co-ed and adaptive nature. Male and female athletes compete on the same teams, as do shooters with physical challenges.

Former competitive high school trapshooter Tyler Koenen agrees. “It provides a level playing field for everyone,” he says. “Anyone can excel in this sport if they set their mind to it.”

After being introduced to the shooting sports through a Future Farmers of America program, Koenen competed in high school trap in 2012-’14 while attending Alden-Conger High School near Albert Lea, Minnesota. In 2014, he was awarded a $5,000 Tom Knapp Memorial Scholarship by Federal Ammunition and Champion Traps & Targets.

“That was huge,” he recalls of receiving the scholarship, which honors legendary exhibition shooter who passed away in 2013. “I’d always looked up to him, and he was actually one of the main inspirations for me getting involved in trap.”

Koenen also enjoyed the sport’s relaxed atmosphere and the opportunity to continually hone his own shooting skills. “Trapshooting is a team sport, but at the same time the biggest challenge is improving yourself,” he explains. “Not just the physical aspect of it, but the mental part as well.”

Giving Back

Koenen enjoyed his high school shooting experiences so much, he returned to the program as a coach. He enjoys passing along the trapshooting tradition, especially to youngsters who have no connection to the outdoors or shooting sports.

“We see kids from hunting backgrounds, but we also get students who have never fired a gun before—and some of them become our top shooters,” he says.

Dan Richmond understands Koenen’s desire to share the sport with the next generation, and has been actively involved in high school trap for most of the past decade.

“I want to do my part to get kids outside,” says Richmond, who works with the South St. Paul Rod and Gun Club and YESS4MN, a non-profit group formed to promote and fund youth shooting sports efforts and other outdoor activities.

“This is a sport where boys and girls can compete side by side—where kids who might not make the soccer or football teams can get out there and enjoy the thrill and camaraderie of competition,” he adds.

Safe And Here To Stay

Richmond notes that trap and skeet shooting are also safer than traditional extracurricular activities. “It’s the only high school sport that’s injury free,” he says. Indeed, the MSHSCTL confirms there have been no injuries reported since its inception in 2001.

Given the sport’s broad appeal to a wide variety of students, Richmond believes the gains seen in recent years are just the beginning. “I think it’s only in its infancy,” he says.

Sable and others at the USA High School Clay Target League concur. “There’s no reason we can’t have 50 state high school clay target leagues,” league vice president John Nelson recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Time will tell, but judging by the results in Minnesota—and the tireless passion of folks like Richmond, Koenen, Sable, Nelson and other youth shooting sports promoters—anything is possible.