Thousands of Minnesota students compete in Alexandria for target shooting as sport gains popularity

a person shoots a gun at a target
Thousands of high school students competed at a nine-day clay target shooting event in Alexandria, Minn. The best teams will go on to the Minnesota State High School League tournament on June 23.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

At the shooting park just outside of Alexandria, the smell of corn dogs and frying hamburgers mingles with the scent of gunpowder.

It’s reminiscent of a carnival with more than 60 vendors and sponsors selling food and gear or trying to showcase careers for the students.

The sound of gunfire is continuous; the firing line stretches some 2,000 feet so there's room for about 90 students to be competing in teams of five at any one time. Hundreds of spectators watch from lawn chairs.

Clay target shooting is a relatively new high school sport in Minnesota but has experienced rapid growth.

The sport involves shooting small clay targets out of the air with a shotgun. This statewide competition was first held in 2009.

“We had about 10 student athletes participating in the tournament,” USA Clay Target League President John Nelson recalls. “Fast forward to where we’re at today for the trapshooting championship, and we have over 8,000 student athletes participating and 340 teams.”

The organization started in Minnesota, but Nelson said the rapid growth is expanding to other states.

“Especially in the ones that started early like Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, New York, Kansas,” he said.

people walk past booths selling merchandise
People peruse booths at a clay target shooting event in Alexandria, Minn. The nine day event has attracted dozens of vendors and sponsors.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

An accessible sport

The team from Minnewaska Area High School, about 20 miles south of Alexandria, is waiting for their turn to shoot.

Head coach Jennie Stone is an accomplished trap shooter. She's been coaching for nine years and she likes the sport’s accessibility. The 22 students at this event will all compete.

“You go to a baseball game or a soccer game or basketball and there’s always kids that sit on the bench,” she said. “In trap shooting, nobody sits on the bench, everybody plays every week, and everybody has the opportunity to have their score count that day.”

There is a cost for students to get into the sport. A beginner gun costs a few hundred dollars, and and prices can range into the thousands.

Some schools provide guns and most programs use local fundraisers to help offset the cost of the sport.

To participate, the students all have to pass a gun safety test proving they can safely handle a shotgun.

Nelson said across the states where it sponsors events, the organization carefully tracks safety.

“We have had more than 250,000 student athletes through our program, and they’ve pulled the trigger more than 200 million times and we’ve never had a reported injury,” he said.

a man with blue and green dyed hair
Assistant Minnewaska coach Jason Van Zee promised the team a new look if they improved their grade point average. "Success," he said with a laugh.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Shooting prowess is the goal of this sport, but Stone expects more than high scores from the kids on her team.

“Our core values are humility, integrity, teamwork, enthusiasm and mental toughness. And we stress that every week,” she said.

As the team waits in the shade to compete, assistant coach Jason Van Zee stands out with his upswept mohawk hairdo dyed the school colors, blue and green.

“We were having some trouble with grades with some of the kids,” Van Zee offers by way of explanation.

So he told the team if they collectively raised their grade point average higher than 3.3 by the end of the year, he would sport a mohawk at the state tournament.

“We had 19 out of 23 kids finish on the honor roll, we had five kids finish with 4.0 or higher,” he said. “Success!”

So he'll wear the colored spiky hair for the next couple of weeks.

a man shoots at a target
A participant shatters a clay target during competition at the Alexandria shooting park on Tuesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Competition and camaraderie

Carson Meyer is a 10th-grader at Minnewaska who is passionate about this sport.

“I just love shooting. I love coming out here and it's so competitive, but yet everyone cares about everyone else. There’s so much camaraderie in the sport,” he said.

Shooting a target, called the bird, that’s about four inches across moving at high speed in a random direction requires good eye-hand coordination.

Meyer has also learned about mindfulness, since a key to success is mental preparation.

a girl poses for a photo
Jordyn Novak joined the Menahga High School clay target shooting to feel more comfortable with guns. She says two years of competition made her feel much more confident.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“First off you have to calm yourself. Then we go through this thing called a pre-shot routine, where we get everything ready,” he explained. “When it's our turn just make sure you’re calm, everything feels right, call for the bird and break it.”

It sounds simple but there’s proper technique that needs to be replicated shot after shot to be successful.

Shattering the clay target with a well-placed round earns the shooter points.

While some competitors are veteran hunters, league officials say about 60 percent of the students are new to trap shooting.

“Before I joined last year, I’d never shot a shotgun in my life,” said Jordyn Novak, who just graduated from Menagha High School, south of Park Rapids. This is her second year of clay target competition. She initially took up the sport to overcome a fear of shooting a shotgun.

“I've definitely become more comfortable around guns and like I know my skills more now than I did before,” she said.

Novak feels confident enough to try duck hunting later this year.

Her teammate Fynn Bakke is headed into Eighth grade and joined the clay target team to improve his hunting skills.

“I like that it’s a lot harder than just normal duck hunting,” he said. “[Targets] are not just flying right over you, but go many different ways and go a lot faster than ducks.”

League President John Nelson said while many participants are hunters, there’s a wide range of skills among students. He thinks the attraction of this rapidly growing sport is simple.

“They see that instant gratification when a target explodes when they hit it. And that’s what keeps them coming back.”

The Minnewaska team won their class at the event and will join the other top finishers in the Minnesota State High School League sanctioned state tournament June 23 in Prior Lake, Minn.

a girl reaches into a bag
A competitor prepares for the next round of shooting during the competition this week.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News
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