For the great majority of Minnesota students, school-related activities have long been over. Long, at least, as youth count the passage of time. Memorial Day, or—at the latest—early June, generally equates to “school’s out” in Minnesota, marking the start of a summer dominated by altogether different priorities.

But for those who participated in the USA High School Clay Target Leagues National Championships, school representation and pride have only recently been put aside for the pleasures of summer vacation. This delay was almost certainly judged worthwhile, not least among the reasons being the success that many young Minnesotans had during the three day event that ended July 14th.

The venue was Mason, Michigan, a rural community in the Southeast corner of that state, where—if you believe Wikipedia—cattle can still be seen grazing within the city limits. True or not, the rural nature of the area would seem a fitting location for this shooting event, held at the grounds of the Michigan Trap Association.

Clay target competition by high school students will never have the “Friday Night Lights” crowd appeal of such team sports as football. But if we believe that school sports are about challenging and rewarding student athletes, rather than providing entertainment for parents, or for stadium or gymnasium crowds, then the high school clay target leagues are fulfilling the mission.

At last count, there were roughly 30,000 students participating on more than 1,000 teams in 25 states. “High school” is only a partially accurate description, because students as young as sixth grade can compete. As with such traditional sports as tennis, there are a few precocious youth who participate at the youngest ages, though generally participants come from 9th through 12th grades.

Roseau, Minnesota, a community of roughly 3,000 residents not much beyond shouting distance from the Canadian border, was the team winner; five of the top 10 teams were from Minnesota, including Champlin Park, Lakeville South, New Prague and Annandale high schools, in addition to Roseau. The top scoring individual shooter hailed from New Prague High School, who won with a perfect score, breaking 200 straight clay targets. These Minnesota teams and the individual “high gun” were among the roughly 1,800 athletes who participated in the national tournament this year.

This was the second year of the national tournament. Minnesota has been the national leader in the high school lay target leagues phenomenon, with a program that began with three teams and fewer than three dozen participants in 2001. More than 12,000 Minnesota youth participated in the 2019 spring season. Minnesota has held a State High School League-sanctioned state tournament event since 2014. This year 40 teams competed for top state honors, won by New Prague High School, which went on to finish eighth in the national tournament.

Clay target league competition does not favor the natural athlete, the fleet afoot, the muscular or one gender over another. It is in many ways an equalizer among competitive sports. Many of the most successful high school clay target league participants are young women. Many believe there is value in youth of these ages sharing competition, success, and the camaraderie of sport across gender lines. School administrators and educators also point out that this sport often draws in students who do not participate actively in other extracurricular school activities, giving them an opportunity for involvement and a sense of inclusion that might otherwise be absent.

Many who participate in the shooting sports, including those who hunt, are heartened by the growth of the high school clay target leagues. At a time when participation in hunting nationally, and—to a lesser degree—in Minnesota has been declining, thousands of young people are being exposed to the handling and safe use of firearms, with the prospect that they may remain participants long after their high school shooting careers are over.

There is no “secret mission” among clay target league advocates to use the sport to rebuild the base of active hunters. On the other hand, conservation and natural resource agencies, including our Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), are actively involved in efforts to retain existing hunters and recruit new ones.

The motivation behind the Minnesota DNR’s Hunter Retention and Recruitment Program is to preserve the participant base that not only provides license-driven funding for the agency’s wildlife management and conservation programs, but also citizen political muscle to sway lawmakers to make law and policy decisions that favor wise husbandry of wetlands, lakes, rivers, forests and prairies. Hunters are among the most active in both funding and environmental advocacy.

A new development, without doubt driven by the success of the high school clay target leagues, is an effort to bring a similar competitive opportunity to college students, through a recreational clay target shooting sport program. The USA Clay Target League, parent organization of the USA High School Clay Target League and its state affiliates, is launching in 2019 the USA College Clay Target League. It is to begin with “virtual” recreational leagues, rather than team-vs-team competitions at a fixed location. According to USA Clay Target League Vice President John Nelson, “students want to continue enjoying the clay target sports they’ve grown up participating in.”

While it may be premature to expect college clay target teams to be travelling from campus to campus for competitions anytime soon, or to see clay target shooting highlights on the Big Ten Network, remember that trap and skeet shooting are Olympic sports. Who’s to say there won’t someday be a Rose Bowl Clay Target Championship on New Year’s Day?!