The league is born
Kids began sharing their excitement on social media about this new sport they were learning. Soon nearby schools Minnetonka and Hopkins joined the program. Then it jumped to six schools, and the following year, 13, and the following year, 29.
“And at that point, everybody that had been kind of resisting the idea started to believe that it probably was doable. The number of schools nearly quadrupled,” Jim said.
Meanwhile, Jim worked with Dave Stead, the executive director of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), to formalize a relationship. Finally, after breaking down several barriers, the Minnesota High School Clay Target League was established as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and a presenting partnership was formed with the MSHSL.
Minnesota became the prototype for other states to start leagues, and the USA High School Clay Target League was created to oversee national operations and growth. Students in grades 6 through 12, who have earned their state-issued hunter education/firearms safety certification, are now finding more and more opportunities to compete in clay target leagues across the country.
In 2016, there were 445 teams and 15,745 participating student athletes competing in 12 states, from Minnesota to Kansas and New York to Oregon.
How cool is this?
Stephanie Petsilis joined Wayzata’s team as an eighth grader in 2011. Her dad had tried to get her into hunting when she was 9, “but I didn’t really like it,” she said. “It kind of took me a while. Then my brother joined the team, so I joined the team.
“That’s when it started to get cool for me. I liked that I was with other kids and girls, too.”
Stephanie wasn’t very good at first, but she stuck with it. She ascended from the novice team as an eighth grader to the JV team as a ninth grader and finally to the varsity squad as a sophomore.
“You keep getting better every day,” she said. “There’s a learning curve. I don’t think I have the greatest hand-eye coordination, but if you practice and you want to be good at it, you totally can. Anybody can do it—that’s the coolest thing about it.”
Stephanie admits it was hard at first, but she liked how the program was run. She liked the competitiveness, the camaraderie, the challenge of learning something new and the gratification of hard work and steady improvement.
“I liked it because it was different,” she said. “I’ve basically tried every sport—ever. But I’m not very athletic. Volleyball, softball, basketball, gymnastics—you name it.”
Jim echoed that same sentiment.
“Trapshooting is for all of those kids that aren’t cut out to be football players. You don’t have to be big, strong, fast or agile. All you need is good hand-eye coordination.”
Needless to say, Stephanie developed into an excellent clay target shooter. She’s now a freshman at the University of Alabama where she competes for the club team. The college club team is not the sole reason she chose Alabama—after all, she did receive a strong academic scholarship. “But it was a really big plus,” she said. “I’m glad it’s not a sport where you’re just kind of done after high school. This can be a lifetime thing for me, and I like that a lot.”
Going for growth (and gold?)
The USA High School Clay Target League isn’t satisfied yet. The goal was to add six new states during the past three years—it added 12.
The bar has been set a little higher for the next five or six years: all 48 contiguous states.
“And I think that’s quite doable,” Jim said.
For Stephanie, being a part of the early movement and being a member of the Plymouth Gun Club, where it all began with Jim Sable, has been special.
“It’s crazy. That makes me really proud,” Stephanie said. “It came from our gun club and Jim.”
And with growth has come better shooters. Scores have consistently improved throughout the years as more and more student athletes get involved and compete.
“It won’t be too long that in the Olympics we’ll be seeing athletes that have come from our youth programs,” Jim said.
Jim understood the safety concerns from school administrators and some parents. But the numbers don’t lie.
“We’re the only high school activity that hasn’t had a single accident in 15 years,” Jim said.
Respect, discipline and proper training are all paramount to the league. Stephanie couldn’t agree more.
“It’s the safest sport there is,” she said. “I just think it’s so fun because it’s really different—and everyone can do it. And because of that it’s going to keep growing, and now all of these kids are going to be hooked for life.”
Join the club
What’s unique to the USA High School Clay Target League is that it’s all-inclusive. Boys, girls, physically challenged—as long as you’re in grades 6-12 and have your firearms safety certificate, you’re in.
“That’s definitely one of my favorite parts,” Stephanie said. “As a girl, I was still able to shoot with the boys. It wasn’t like volleyball. I could still do something that the boys could do. I think it’s really cool that all kids can do it. People who use wheelchairs can shoot from their chairs. That’s just awesome.”
One principal told Jim that some of the schools were getting so big that kids were passing each other in the halls eight times a day, and they don’t even know each
“These kids are practically rock stars around the school now because of what they’re doing,” he said.
School administrators took a survey to find out what the student athletes like about the league so much. Jim, the former marketing guru and founder of the league, strongly believed it was the excitement of trying a new sport, acquiring new skills and improving rather quickly.
Nope. The No. 1 answer from kids?
“The new friends I made,” Jim said. “I didn’t expect that.” ✪