High school administrators, at least in Minnesota, are aware that the co-curricular activity of Clay Target exists, but do they really know about it. That is the juxtaposition that John Nelson has faced countless times the past decade as a top administrator of the Minnesota-based USA Clay Target League.
“Since Day 1 in 2008, we understand the initial perception that students and guns are not a healthy mix,” said Nelson, currently the president of the non-profit organization. “Anytime you put those two components together, you think of safety – first and foremost. We continue to educate because we are true believers in this opportunity for students. We face the tough challenges and questions, whether it is from a school board or a skeptical administrator. But each question and every concern are supported by testimonials and statistics. When they listen, they begin to understand and see the great positivity in it. It’s like an ‘a-ha’ moment.”
One statistic is particularly formidable. According to Nelson:
• With more than 120,000 participants across the country since 2008, in an estimated 75 million trigger pulls, there have been zero injuries or safety incidents.
“We are the only activity that requires a safety certificate to participate,” Nelson said. “These kids know the laws and respect them. They enter this activity with a high level of interest and excitement. Really, the Clay Target program sells itself. We tell the schools when they are exploring the idea of offering this activity, the kids don’t have to worry about being a frontiersman.”
Learning about firearms and becoming safety-certified prior to participation represents a badge of honor, Nelson says. For many participants, it is the first time they have set foot on a trap-shooting range. But because of their pre-participation training, they feel at home and move about with confidence, yet on high alert while implementing safety measures.
Clay Target had humble beginnings with just three teams and 30 participants in 2008.
In 2012, outdoor superstore Cabela’s provided a grant to form the USA Clay Target League. Acceptance and growth flourished. In 2014, the Minnesota State High School League was the first state high school association in the nation to sponsor Clay Target as an activity. In its first season with the MSHSL, there were 185 teams with more than 6,100 participants. This spring, there are 325 teams and 12,275 participants.
Nationwide, there is a record-setting 27,700 participants on 1,300 teams representing 34 states this spring.
Perhaps the biggest draw of Clay Target is that it invites all populations within the school community. Clay Target is all-inclusive to genders, skill levels and students who participate in adaptive sports. Because the Clay Target League does not permit limits on sizes of teams, there have been rosters at some schools that have reached 135 kids. In some rural settings, more than one-third of the enrollment competes on the Clay Target team.
Curiosity, camaraderie, acceptance and a chance to wear a medal fuel participation. Equally motivating is a seventh-grader participating with an upperclassman with no designation of B-squad or junior varsity to distinguish them.
“Clay Target competition has opened up another avenue of activity for both boys and girls to take part in,” said Jim Weinzierl, an administrative region secretary in northwestern Minnesota. “It’s probably the fastest-growing activity in our schools. Clay Target teams unify students who are already in other school activities, as well as students who may not be a part of any other activity that a school offers.”
While Nelson beams at the growth, he refuses to become complacent. He and other leaders of the Clay Target League are committed to continued growth and providing opportunities for all students.
“It is rewarding, sure, but what really makes it even more satisfying is to see the faces of kids and parents, or a participant in a wheelchair, surpassing everyone’s expectations by competing in this activity,” Nelson said. “Whether they hit five targets or all 25, we celebrate that. When these kids do well, it is incredible to see. They think they are rock stars when they have a medal around their neck. That is pretty awesome.”
CLAY TARGET: HOW DOES IT WORK?
PARTICIPATION IMPACT OF A PRESENTING PARTNER
|Student participants||1,715||12,275||700 percent|
Note – In 2019, Clay Target ranked seventh out of 45 activities offered by the Minnesota State High School League.
2020-2021: 36,690 Participants on 1,310 teams – 34 states
2019-2020: 13,421 Participants on 414 teams – 18 states (COVID)
2018-2019: 32,810 Participants on 1,042 Teams – 25 States
2017-2018: 26,426 Participants on 804 Teams – 20 States
2016-2017: 20,109 Participants on 615 Teams – 15 states
2015-2016: 15,745 Participants on 445 Teams – 12 states
2014-2015: 11,077 Participants on 317 Teams – 3 states
2013-2014: 7,046 Participants on 191 Teams – 2 states
2012-2013: 3,637 Participants on 114 Teams
2011-2012: 1,715 Participants on 57 Teams
2010-2011: 707 Participants on 29 Teams
2009-2010: 340 Participants on 13 Teams
2008-2009: 60 Participants on 6 Teams
2007-2008: 30 Participants on 3 Teams
Tim Leighton is communications coordinator of the Minnesota State High School League, and he is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.