Hundreds of high schoolers shouldered their shotguns this week as the South Dakota State High School Clay Target League kicked off its second season.
Last year 211 students from seven high school teams participated in the league’s inaugural spring season. This week, teams from 21 high schools started practice in preparation for the spring league.
“We tripled the number of teams from the first season, and we’re up to 530 shooters,” said the league’s state director, Joe Courneya. “We’ve done very well, and we’ll probably add a half-dozen to a dozen more teams in 2018.”
The league is an independent provider of shooting sports as an extracurricular, co-ed and adaptive activity for high schools and students in grades six through 12. In other words, competitive trap shooting is not a sanctioned sport by the South Dakota High School Activities Association, but Courneya said that’s the league’s long-term goal.
“We want to keep working with the state to work out the mechanics to get that done,” said Courneya, who is also the state director in North Dakota. “Right now, it typically would fall in line with club sports.”
Last month Courneya attended the 2017 South Dakota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association Spring Conference in Chamberlain, where he was able to present the program to athletic directors from across the state.
“It was nice to talk about the program to the whole group,” he said. “Now when students, parents or teachers ask to get it going, every athletic director has heard about it, so I think that’s another reason it’ll grow rapidly.”
Teams practice and compete at their home trap range, which keeps travel costs low for young shooters. In head-to-head competition, teams from the same conference square off in a virtual manner and their scores are posted online. Conferences are determined by team size rather than geographic location or school size.
“Also, the sport doesn’t cost the school any money,” Courneya said. “It’s all run by volunteers, so there’s no cost for staff, administration or support staff to run it. That’s another reason the program is popular and easy to add, because the school’s administration can look at it and say we don’t have to budget for it.”
Team registration for the 2017 spring league opened Jan. 13 and closed March 1. Registration for individual shooters closed March 10. Prior to joining the league, each student is required to pass the state HuntSAFE course and meet school eligibility requirements.
Courneya believes the state’s hunting heritage plays a large role in the league’s appeal, but he also said the league’s inclusive nature is a major reason why young shooters are showing up in droves.
“Every team member’s score counts — nobody sits on the bench,” he said. “Scores are kept both individually and as part of the team, so a person is driven by individual skills while contributing to a team.”
While some shooters also participate in other springtime school-based activities, Courneya said 35 percent of the league’s participants are not active in another sport.
“It’s a nine-week league, so each team will shoot two practice weeks, a reserve week and then shoot their league weeks,” Courneya said. “You will always shoot as a team, but if a shooter happens to miss a competition, his or her reserve score is used, so that adds a little flexibility. Teams are broken down into novice, junior varsity and varsity based on shooting abilities, and we have an electronic management tool that manages all of that.”
After the regular season wraps up, every team member, regardless of individual or team scores, can participate in the state tournament, which will be held June 10 at the Aberdeen Gun Club.
One local team new to the league this year is from Britton-Hecla High School.
“We first approached the school board with the idea in February, and it slowly progressed from there until we were basically endorsed by the school,” said Ray Effling, who is the team’s volunteer head coach. “The response has been unbelievable. We were only expecting 10-15 kids, but we ended up with 26 on the team. Twenty are from Britton-Hecla, and six are from Langford, who came into the league with us.”
While the league encourages schools to start their own teams, young shooters from neighboring schools that aren’t participating in the league can join another team as long as a cooperative agreement has been signed by the athletic director at each school.
“When that many kids signed up it really changed our budget, but the local businesses and communities in Marshall County have stepped up to support the program,” Effling said. “The kids have stepped up, too. They’re busy selling tickets for a gun raffle, but like other sports they do have to put some money of their own in to make it all work.”
Effling said the team consists of 23 boys and three girls, but the competition is completely co-ed.
“It really is a nice bunch of kids,” he said. “We have a wide range of skill and experience levels. Some have never picked up a gun before, and there are a few that could be right up there when the state tourney comes.”
Effling has been involved with the Marshall County 4-H trap team and said he decided to pursue this idea because he has child on the team.
“If it weren’t for my kids, I’m not sure I’d really be this involved in the 4-H shooting sports or the trap team or anything like that, but it’s been a really good deal for them,” he said.
The team will practice and compete at the Marshall County Sportsman’s Club trap range at Hickman Dam, and Effling said he’ll have plenty of help along the way.
“We’ve got a great group of certified assistant coaches, as we’ve had a number of parents volunteer to be here and help when they can,” he said. “But people like Dana Vorachek, who is the president of Marshall County Sportsman’s Club, has volunteered to be an assistant coach even though he has no children involved. He’s determined to see this thing through.”
Courneya said that in addition to promoting safety, accountability, sportsmanship, leadership and confidence, the long-lasting impact provided by adult role models in a shooting sports program should not go unnoticed.
“One of the things we hear is that these kids are getting that positive influence in their lives from being on a trap team,” he said. “Some kids may not get that at home or from another sport or activity, and it’s probably one of the program’s most overlooked and important benefits. Also, kids who participate in positive out-of-school activities that are related to school often do better in class because they now have an interest in something at school.”
Courneya said the league, which is in more than 20 states now, is breathing life into what many considered a dying sport.
“It’s reviving a number of trap clubs around the country, especially in rural areas where there’s typically an old crew with no new blood coming in,” he said. “The trap clubs are now getting a new audience using the trap club, which, in turn, can be a great resource for the entire community.”
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Participating high schools
The 21 high schools participating in the 2017 spring season of the South Dakota State High School Clay Target League:
• Bon Homme
• Brandon Valley
• Dakota Valley
• Elk Point/Vermillion
• Hot Springs
• Pierre TF Riggs
• Stanley County
• Timber Lake
For more information, go to sdclaytarget.com.