It's a sunny spring afternoon at the Bald Eagle Sportsmen's Association in Hugo. Cars pull up to the parking lot. Smiling teens jump out by twos and threes. They uncase shotguns, grab bags full of shooting gear, and head to the clubhouse. Younger students pile out of carpool vehicles and do the same.
"Let's go! Field One is open," shouts coach Bob Goebel, clapping his hands. Goebel heads the Mahtomedi trapshooting team, which consists of middle schoolers and high schoolers and is one of 324 such school teams across the state.
Soon a squad of five shooters fans out on the trapshooting range behind the clubhouse, one shooter at each of five stations on a crescent. Precisely 16 yards ahead of them is a trap house from which orange, roughly four-inch-diameter clay targets will fly out at 40-plus miles per hour and random angles.
The contrast on the shooting line is striking, from a girl who weighs maybe a hundred pounds to a young man who looks like a football linebacker.
Shotguns in the shooters' hands run the gamut, too, as students supply their own firearms. The guns range from do-it-all pump-actions worth maybe a couple hundred dollars to specialized over-under double-barrels. All shoot fairly wide patterns of shot from each shell, the better to spread out the BBs and get one—which is all it takes—or more to bust the target.
"It's a mental game," says seventh-grader Cal Whitehead. "You have to forget a bad shot, start over, do it one at a time."
Whitehead is a second-year shooter who uses a 20-gauge shotgun he received in fifth grade. Friends on the shooting team helped get him interested in joining.
As the first round begins a shooter yells, "Pull!"
A clay target flies. Pow!
And on down the line and through again, until every shooter has taken five shots at his or her station. Then, shotgun muzzles pointed safely in the air, each shooter advances one station. By the end of the round, each will have taken 25 shots. They'll take a break and shoot another round for a total of 50, with a participant's final score being the sum of hit targets over two rounds.
The day is about shooting, yes. But more. Some boys play cards in the clubhouse, waiting their turn on the range. A group of girls sits at a picnic table, chatting and getting fitted for new ear protection.
The team is part of the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League, which has grown steadily since its formation in 2001 and is the largest such league in the nation. This spring, more than 12,000 shooters around the state shouted "Pull" millions of times during practices and competitions. There is a smaller fall league, too.
Today's event is a competition, but it's not a head-to-head matchup. Every shooter is essentially competing with every other shooter in the conference, as they do during the entire season in virtual weekly competitions like this. Teams shoot at their home range sometime Sunday through Saturday, scores are reported, and the league uploads them to the league website Saturday night.
The Mahtomedi shooters all have different goals. Some of them want to simply do their personal best, which in turn helps the team. Others, like junior Lauren Hamme, also hunt game and want to improve their all-around marksmanship. "My brothers started shooting on the trap team, so I joined, too," says Hamme, who is interested in a law enforcement career. "I like trapshooting because there's no pressure if you play it right. You miss, you move on. You get your best scores when you're just having fun."
"But you can see results. Just practicing, just shooting a lot, makes you better," she adds. "It's very natural. I didn't have anything to prove, but I can shoot as well as my brothers."
The Big Shoot.
For many Minnesota school trapshooters, the definition of success includes a trip in June to the Minnesota Trap Shooting Championship in Alexandria. Billed by the state league as the world's largest shooting event, the competition at the Alexandria Shooting Park hosts more than 300 teams and more than 8,000 shooters on 20 trap fields, with almost a million shouts of "Pull!" and clay targets thrown. More than 30,000 people attend when you count coaches, family, friends, and fans.
The championship features team and individual competitions. The top 40 teams across classes advance to the Clay Target State Tournament in Prior Lake the following week. A hundred individual shooters—owners of the top 100 regular-season shooting averages—go to "state," too.
At both events will be a wide range of competitors. Unlike some sports that tend to favor certain physical attributes, trapshooting is a great equalizer. Those who bring the experience, mental game, steady hands, and a dead eye for flying orange discs will rise to the top.
BESA's Phil Lay, who like Sable saw an injection of youth and life at his beloved shooting range, summarizes the trapshooting phenomenon best: "It's so great. Short, tall, wide, narrow, boys and girls alike … you don't have to be a jock to shoot. And you will get better. It's for everybody."
Still other trap participants want to add an extracurricular activity to their future college applications. And nearly all of the Mahtomedi team members want to be among the 8,000 young people who will participate in the state trapshooting championship events in Alexandria and Prior Lake at the end of the season.
Minnesota is a hotbed of trapshooting, boasting the most participants and the largest competition of any state in the nation. In fact, more Minnesota students now shoot on a trap team than play high school hockey. The phenomenon is attracting a new wave of young shooters, as well as providing a big boost to shooting ranges and possibly a source for replenishing the declining ranks of hunters.
A Mental Game.
"Kids just love to shoot. It's natural," says Goebel, who has coached the Mahtomedi team for seven years. "They get better because it's fun. Shooting is very instinctive, and you just learn as you do. I just stand behind, give a few suggestions, encourage them."
Across the league, the average score for all shooters runs between 15 and 17 busted targets for every 25 clays shot at. Novice shooters average up to 14.9, while more experienced team members average 19.0 and up. Perfect scores are rare, but they happen. For example, in one week of league shooting last spring, 452 perfect 25s were shot over about 22,000 rounds of trap, or about two rounds out of every 100.
The Mahtomedi team has grown from 17 kids in 2013 to 53 in 2019. All of them come to the sport with different motivations and mindsets, and they get different things out of it, but at the core of the team is a communal spirit.
"The camaraderie is great," says Goebel. "A miss? No big deal. Everybody is always encouraging each other."
Kaylee Tveit is a freshman in her second year of shooting. She was averaging 20 last spring, up from 13 in her first year. Before trap she had tried pistol shooting. "This kind of shooting is way more fun—a moving target, you're swinging on it, there's action."
"I've made great friends doing this," she adds.
Eighth-grader Ryan Vingers is perhaps more typical of a kid you'd expect to be on the team: He has an English cocker spaniel for hunting pheasants, ducks, and grouse. He has also shot skeet, a different shotgun sport that involves clay targets crossing at high and low angles, with his grandfather.
Vingers has shot a perfect 25 at trap. "It's hard," he says, "but you can do it. One target at a time, don't count."
"I just love guns and being around them," Vingers adds. "This is a safe, fun way to do that."
Charlie Frable is a senior and a fifth-season shooter. His shooting vest sports eight "25" patches representing perfect scores. "You just have to practice, practice, practice," he says.
Joining the shooting team was a big confidence builder. "You don't have to be a star athlete to shoot well," he says. "Everybody has the physical tools to do this. It just takes a lot of mental strength to work through a miss or a slump."
He is heading to Minnesota State University in Mankato this fall. "I want to start a shooting team there," he says.
Sophomore Owen Balk is a four-year veteran of the team. He burns through a case of ammunition per week—that's 250 rounds—practicing both trap and skeet shooting. "I just love shooting. It's concentration and an escape," he says.
The Bald Eagle Sportsmen's Association is like a second home to him. "Owen's around here all the time, either shooting or helping out around the range," says Phil Lay, a mainstay at the club.
"Yeah, I love helping out Phil and all the old guys," says Balk with a wink as the shooters from two generations work together to fill a target thrower, or trap, with clay targets.
Where the Kids Are.
Like the Mahtomedi shooters, thousands of other sixth- to 12th-graders across Minnesota are shooting in the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League because of the vision and energy of one man, Jim Sable.
After he retired in 2000, Sable, a lifelong hunter and shooter, often shot trap and skeet at the Plymouth Gun Club.
"One day a guy with a truckload of clay targets pulled up," says Sable. "He laughed, 'You young guys need to help me unload this truck.' I looked around. Every head was gray or bald. I was the youngest guy. Gun clubs across the state were closed or closing. I thought, 'This sport isn't going to survive if we don't attract some young people.' "
A British creation in the late 1700s, trapshooting took hold in the United States in the early 1800s, and a youth trapshooting program began in association with the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1976.
To help grow the sport in Minnesota, Sable went where the kids are: schools. He spoke to activities directors and school boards, trying to sell them on the idea of trapshooting teams as part of their sports and activity lineups.
"I'd often get furrowed brows about the shooting part," Sable recalls. "But I explained: There are a lot of kids out there who are not big enough or athletic enough to play, say, football or basketball. Here is a sport where size or agility isn't an issue, where boys and girls, anybody, everybody, can compete. Every week."
Sable got some help making his case from John Nelson, now president of the USA High School Clay Target League, parent organization to the Minnesota league, which he co-founded with Sable. When meeting with schools about the idea of forming trapshooting teams, Nelson and Sable smartly brought along kids who were interested in the sport.
Orono and Wayzata were first to field small teams in 2001. Minnetonka, Hopkins, and other west metro schools soon joined. Worthington was the first school outside the Twin Cities metro area to form a team.
Trapshooting is a club sport at Minnesota schools, holding events off campus and raising its own funds. "Here's an activity brought in from the outside, with funding provided, engaging some kids who might not otherwise participate in activities," says Craig Perry, associate director of the Minnesota State High School League, which is a presenting partner with the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League for the Clay Target State Tournament in Prior Lake.
The league's mission of inclusivity extends to shooters of all abilities, including those in wheelchairs. And though the league was predominantly male in the early days, 20 percent of its current shooters are female.
There is a club fee for participants. "But we do fundraisers every year," Goebel says. "That way, no shooter is turned away. Anyone can shoot on scholarship." And travel costs are kept in check by the virtual competition model.
For a sport that involves firearms, safety is a priority. Every participant must first complete a hunter safety or firearms safety course, and they follow safety procedures developed by the national league. The league's safety record is spotless: No accidents, incidents, or injuries.
The Hunting Connection.
With hunting participation—along with related license revenue—declining in Minnesota and nationwide, the trapshooting phenomenon holds promise as a source for bolstering hunter numbers and conservation funding.
"There's a lot of growth in shooting sports participation through the league," says James Burnham, hunting and angling recruitment, retention, and reactivation coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. "We're trying to catch up on the hunting side, to make this league a potential gateway to hunting."
Burnham adds that there is anecdotal evidence that league shooters go on to explore hunting opportunities, though he says no statewide surveys have yet been done to evaluate the issue.
Mahtomedi seventh-grader Cal Whitehead is a hunter who has shot both ducks and pheasants on mentored hunts.
Kaylee Tveit, the former pistol shooter, comes from a family that doesn't hunt, and despite her shooting proficiency she's not interested in taking it up. She says she would hunt only if it was "catch-and-release," which is what she practices fishing.
There's still value in having more shooters shooting, Burnham points out, referring to an excise tax on firearms, ammunition, and related outdoor gear that helps fund conservation. Minnesota receives about $20 million a year from the tax established by the Pittman-Robertson Act in 1937. "Just having new shooters produces more Pittman-Robertson funds for conservation," says Burnham.