Students from Ashland and Washburn High Schools are set to become participants in Wisconsin’s fastest growing competitive high school sport — clay target shooting.
According to a representative of the Wisconsin State High School Clay Target League, Ashland and Washburn students will join state high school trap league competitors from throughout the state when they take to the firing line at Sports Hollow shooting range for the first time next spring.
“Last year, nearly 500 student athletes participated in the spring league” said WSHSCTL Executive Director Jim Sable. “With many new teams like Ashland and Washburn joining, and with the expansion of existing teams, we expect to see over 1,000 student athletes involved next year.”
Sable pointed out that not only was the sport experiencing rapid growth, the clay target league is also the safest sport in high school. Since its founding, the league has reported no injuries of gun-free zone violations at school.
When the Ashland and Washburn students finish competing next spring, all of the trap shooting teams will be invited to participate in individual and team competition at the 2016 WSHSCTL State Tournament set for June 11 at the Wisconsin Trap Association shooting complex in Rome, just south of Wisconsin Rapids.
“With an expected 2,000 attendees and more than 500 student athletes, this tournament will be our largest ever,” Sable said.
According to WSHSCTL Vice President John Nelson, the league competes as a virtual sport, with teams shooting at their own home ranges and their scores compiled by the league office against those of other teams.
“The only traveling is to their local gun club,” Nelson said.
In the case of both Ashland and Washburn, that means Sports Hollow, a bit west of Ashland on U.S. Highway 2.
Nelson said in the area of high school clay target shooting, Minnesota led the way.
“They will have 10,000 kids participating in their league next year,” he said, noting that some 270 teams in the state participated in shooting sports. “Because of Minnesota’s success, last year we opened up the Wisconsin State High School Clay Target League to try and duplicate Minnesota’s efforts.”
Thus far that attempt has met with an enthusiastic response, with six teams and 90 participants in their first year.
“This year that number grew to 23 teams and about 500 kids. It is growing even faster than it did in Minnesota,” Nelson said. “And there are still seven or eight months to go before the team registration ends.”
Nelson said shooting sports of this kind were a natural fit for a state like Wisconsin with its rich hunting tradition.
“Also from a student athlete’s perspective, we are a co-ed sport so both boys and girls compete on the teams on an equal basis,” he said. “We are also the only adaptive sport, so kids on wheelchairs can also shoot.”
Although it is accessible, clay target shooting does use up a lot of shotgun shells and clay targets.
“The cost to the league for a kid to participate is about $225 to $240, so without the support of businesses and conservation groups it wouldn’t be possible,” Nelson said. “As it is, it is a very low cost for the families that are participating to take part. They don’t have to travel much, so they are saving money.”
Nelson said the sport is a great benefit for schools.
“At a time when schools are cutting costs, here is a program that comes to schools,
there is no cost whatsoever, all the coaches are volunteers, everyone is insured, coaches and kids,” he said. “It helps them comply with Title IX, it’s an equal opportunity sport, they don’t require a special facility or any maintenance. It has become a real easy program for schools to have.”
The teams are operated as a club sport, and participants are required to have passed a certified hunter safety course before they can compete.
“We are the only sport in high school that requires safety certification,” Nelson said.
The deadline for students to sign up is March 17, with the season getting underway in the first week in April and running until mid-June.
“This is a sport that is going to grow very, very quickly,” Nelson said.
Currently, teams from the area include Northwestern and Drummond High Schools, with Superior due to join this spring along with Ashland and Washburn.
Getting the ball rolling on the Ashland and Washburn teams were Brian and Jenny Mrnak, owners of Sports Hollow. Brian will coach the Ashland team while Washburn trap shooter John Baregi will coach the Washburn team.
“It is an awesome opportunity for the youth in the area, especially for the kids who aren’t into sports, but are into hunting and other things like that,” said Jenny Mrnak. “It’s an awesome opportunity for them.”
Mrnak said she had to do a fair amount of explaining about the program to get the school’s approval.
“But once everybody realized that there would be no firearms on site at the high school, that there was no cost to the high school, that it was a club-run base, they were on board,” she said.
Mrnak said she and her husband and a number of other shooting sports enthusiasts brainstormed about how to get young people involved in shooting sports before taking the initiative to get involved with the League.
“We are all very excited about it,” she said. “We have an awesome group of adults who have volunteered to help out as coaches or range safety officers and managers.”
Mrnak said there are about on the order of 20 kids so far involved with the teams, but that those numbers are fairly soft, and the actual number that will be taking part next spring could be substantially higher.
“We are going to have an informational meeting after school starts in September at Ashland and Washburn High Schools,” she said.
At that meeting, prospective team members will be able to ask questions of the WSHSCTL state representative.
Mrnak said some shotguns would be available for team members to use.
“We will be looking for donations to get the team started,” she said. “They will have to have taken the firearms safety course, but one of our adult coaches is a firearms safety teacher and if there is a huge group of individuals that don’t have the certification, he can teach a class.”