Erin Flaig turns her shotgun and fires at the orange clay target that arcs above the Proctor Gun Club field. The pigeon explodes into fragments. Flaig cocks her gun, waits as her teammates on the Hermantown High School shooting squad take their turns, and then readies her gun again.
Again, the little Frisbee-like disc shatters in mid-air.
"It's very difficult at first," Flaig says of trap shooting. "But once you get the hang of it, it's second nature."
It's also Minnesota's fastest growing high school sport. In 2008 only about 30 students statewide competed in sanctioned trap shooting events. This year, 8,600 took part. Flaig's Hermantown team is one of more than 200 preparing for the Minnesota High School Trapshooting Championship that begins later this week in Alexandria.
The state's hunting heritage makes it a natural for Minnesota. Flaig said she discovered trapshooting from her sister, who joined one of Hermantown's first teams four years ago. Her family has hunted together so she's comfortable around guns. The sport came the same way to other Hermantown trapshooters.
"I've been hunting with my parents all my life. This just seemed like a continuation of that," said senior Josh Rollins, who started competing as a freshman.
He compares it to duck hunting. And after four years of shooting at little clay discs just 4 inches across that bob up and down in the wind, he says he's hitting a lot more ducks.
"My dad always gives me crap, you can't hit the broad side of a barn, Josh. So I came here and I shot against him and I beat him, so that made me pretty happy," he said.
Students use their own guns. They're not allowed to bring them to school and must pick them up before going to the shooting range. They also pay for their own ammo. The average cost for the season per kid is about $230, which includes access to a shooting range as well.
And unlike other high school sports, these players do not try out. All can take part if they complete a Department of Natural Resources-sponsored gun safety course. They get divided up into tiers based on their skill level.
This is Hermantown's fifth year competing in the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League, which started in Plymouth in 2001 with just five kids.
Back then, it was a tough sell to school districts, said John Nelson, the high school league's vice president.
"We would stand up in front of a crowd, and say we want to talk to you about something today that involves, kids, guns, and schools," he recalled. "The wide-eyed audience would look at us and say, 'Where is this going to go?'"
Hermantown Coach Guy LeBlanc remembers a similar reaction when students recruited him to help start a team. At the time there were still only about 25 teams statewide.
"The school board wasn't real receptive to it," LeBlanc said. "I understand, with guns and school."
But as acceptance has grown, says LeBlanc, who's also a high school math teacher, so has its popularity.
"It fits the niche of a different kid," he said. "Most of our kids, there's 45 on our team this year, and I think there's about 28, 29 of them that don't play another sport, they're not in band, choir, drama, this is their thing. And you don't have to be 6 foot 2 and 220 pounds to be effective at it."
The sport's accessibility is part of trapshooting's appeal among high schools. Students and parents once had to fight to get teams, but now athletic directors and school officials are the ones calling the high school league about organizing teams, Nelson said, adding that more than 100 schools have asked about starting teams next year.
Nelson says he's received inquiries from school officials in more than 30 states interested in the Minnesota trap shooting model and says the association has helped form similar leagues in Wisconsin and North Dakota.
The only factor holding the league back from growing even more in Minnesota is the limited capacity at local gun ranges. "We estimate this spring we turned away 2,000 kids," Nelson said.
Last year the Minnesota Legislature set aside $2 million to help gun clubs expand. One of those grants went to the Proctor Gun Club, where Hermantown and three other teams compete.
The high school teams are ensuring the sport's future, said David Gilbert, the club's secretary.
"If you look around, a lot of the clubs, the membership is getting older. We had a number of shooters shooting into their 80s, even one into his 90s," he said. "This brings some fresh people into it."
Those young shooters begin firing in Alexandria on Thursday. The top teams advance to the state finals on June 20 at the Minneapolis Gun Club in Prior Lake.
Flaig certainly hopes to be there.
As she practices shooting in Proctor — covered in a camouflaged hat and a vest with big pockets to hold her 12 gauge shotgun shells — she mentions that she's also a member of the Hermantown High dance team, which probably makes her Minnesota's most eclectic two-sport athlete.
"Yeah definitely both ends of the spectrum there, yeah," she laughs. "Get all dressed up, put makeup on, put your hair up, and then dance to a song, then come out, put your camo hat on, and shoot with the guys."
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