A young gunman’s appalling murder of 19 students and two teachers at a grade school in Uvalde, Texas, horrified Kansas teacher Victor Mercado and parent Matt Onofrio. Like so many, both miss the pre-Sandy Hook days when active shooter drills weren’t part of a student’s educational process.
Both also hope people can look past such unspeakable tragedies and see the amount of good that can come from programs that safely bring students and firearms together. Onofrio and Mercado are coaches for clay target shooting teams at Kansas high schools. A fast growing scholastic sport in America, it is also proving safe, according to John Nelson, USA Clay Target League president.
“What those kids did in Texas and Buffalo were terrible tragedies, but they’re so very rare compared to the number of students who benefit from these kinds of programs,” says Onofrio, head clay target shooting coach at Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School. “For every bad kid we read or hear about, there are thousands of success stories with young (target) shooters in Kansas and probably millions across the country.”
Mercado says Maize High School has had as many as 48 students on his school’s clay target shooting team. He’d like to see many more benefit from the program.
“I love to see kids get involved in anything outdoors,” says Mercado, who teaches Spanish and an outdoors education class that introduces students to such pursuits as fishing, camping, hunting and target shooting. “That’s especially true of clay target teams. They have so much to offer.”
He also touts “life-lesson skills” that go beyond what students can learn in a classroom. Mercado’s students learn not only firearms safety and awareness, but respect for others and themselves, the importance of determination, working as a team and mental toughness.
Most scholastic target coaches say such traits help youth mature into good adults and help keep them from being caught up in the rising tide of teen gun violence.
“I don’t worry about those kids at all for that,” Todd Robinson, a 17-year law enforcement professional, says of the young people he coaches on a shooting team in Concordia. “They’ve learned to understand and respect firearms. They also have something they belong to, a place, the trap range, where they know they’re welcome and included. It’s when kids don’t have that, that we can have some serious problems.”
Opportunities for such “target busting educations” have spread quickly across Kansas and have become amazingly popular.
A fast growing school sport
Kansas got into high school clay target competitions back in 2016, with 29 schools and 321 shooters. Josh Kroells, the USA Clay Target League Kansas state director, says the recent spring season saw 108 Kansas high school teams put about 2,200 students out on ranges, busting clay targets with shotguns. Another six Kansas schools, with about 170 shooters, who can be as young as sixth graders, have teams within the Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation. Some teams include students from several schools because not all schools host the activity.
Nationally, the USA Clay Target League began in 2007 with a few Minnesota schools. Now, it’s in 34 states with about 32,000 students participating. Some states, such as Minnesota, have stunning levels of participation.
“In Minnesota we have more students shooting clay targets than boys and girls on high school hockey teams combined, and Minnesota is so known for hockey,” Nelson says. “We have 12,000 student athletes shooting targets on about 400 teams.”
Nelson says participation is growing at a rate of about 20% annually across the nation. State clay target championships can draw more participants than many other sports.
Most Kansas teams have been started by students, a faculty member or parents. Kroells says schools must approve a program before it can be accepted into the USA Clay Target League. Administrative approval allows a team to use the school’s name and mascot. School financial support varies greatly, but is never enough to cover all costs. Money also comes through team dues, donations and fundraisers. Clay target team participants are subject to all school sports rules such as maintaining good academic and attendance records. School policies forbidding guns and ammo on school grounds are strictly enforced.
Mercado says he’s gotten no negative comments from the Maize High School administration or faculty.
“Our administration is supportive of the shooting team because it gets kids involved in an extracurricular activity,” he says. “They know when kids get involved in a school activity, it gives them a sense of pride that they belong to something. Shooting sports is just one of many activities our school offers.”
Some coaches did face initial challenges when creating a shooting team. Augusta High School just finished its first year of target shooting competitions. Andy Hall, team coach, says it took three years to get the team started.
“We had a principal who didn’t believe in any kind of shooting. We’d make a presentation asking to start a team and we’d get an immediate ‘no’ from her, even though we had an athletic director and several teachers supporting us,” says Hall. “Eventually we got a new principal who was big into youth involvement. We took him and the school superintendent out to shoot some clays and things got rolling. The school board approved our team 7-0. Some members asked why we hadn’t had a team earlier.”
Nelson says some high schools that experienced past school shooting tragedies now embrace their high school teams. Minnesota’s Rocori High School had two students murdered by another in 2003. They’ve had a clay target team for several years. Last spring the school’s team fielded 74 students, says Nelson.
Coaches like Mercado and Hall say they’ve occasionally heard from parents who were leery of anything that combined kids and firearms. Some even had kids on their team. Mercado told of an 18-year-old student who purchased his own shotgun and parents said he couldn’t bring it into their house. Hall had a parent who was very outspoken, both against her child shooting and the shooting team concept.
“Once she (the parent) really took the time to understand what was going on, and how things were working, she changed her mind,” says Hall. “She’s now a huge supporter of the team.”
In both cases, the coaches invited the parents to come see how the team practiced and operated. Those parents eventually became supporters of the programs. The overall safety of the sport has been the deciding factor for many, say Mercado and Hall.
Safety first, mandatory accreditation, zero injuries
On June 18 and 19, the Kansas State High School Clay Target Championship was held at the Kansas Trapshooting Association’s Ark Valley Gun Club, a few miles north of Wichita. Kroells says teams came from 84 schools, totaling 1,363 students. Each shot at least 100 clay targets. Mercado, Kroells and others say the event went very well.
“That means we had over 130,000 rounds fired in two days, and nobody got hurt,” says Kroells. “But that’s not a surprise, because these kids are so well trained as per gun handling and following safeguards.” Nelson says the safety record of the state competition mirrors that of the sport nationally, where millions of rounds are fired annually.
Kroells added that teams have a high ratio of coaches to students. Head coaches must go through training before they can coach with a team.
Paradoxically, injuries in a sport that involves weapons are all but nonexistent when compared with traditional athletic activities.
Jennifer Rolland has two daughters, Emma, 15, and Anna, 13, on Baldwin City’s interscholastic teams.
“You know, we’ve come home from (cheerleading practice) with a couple of concussions,” says Rolland. “They’ve never come home, after four years, from clay target practice with any kind of injury. These kids, and their great coaches, know what they’re doing.”
Kroells and Mercado say no other school sport has better safety preparation.
All student target shooters must attend and pass an approved, hands-on hunting/shooting safety course to be admitted to a team.
“It’s the only high school sport in America with mandatory safety certification,” says Nelson. “The safety of the participants is always of first and foremost importance.”
Coaches say participants take what they’ve learned to heart.
“The responsibility is not lost on them,” says Mercado. “If someone does slip up, another kid almost always gives them a polite reminder before I can say anything.”
Trap is the main sport for the scholastic target teams. The rules of the game, and the trap courses, are designed for optimal safety. Targets are launched remotely from a single trap house, away from the shooters. Shotguns are loaded one shell at a time and only when it’s a shooter’s turn to try a target. Only one shooter has their gun loaded at a time. They call to get a target thrown when they’re ready.
Shotguns must remain unloaded, and open in a way that would make firing impossible, until it’s a student’s turn to fire at a target. Muzzles are always pointed in a safe direction, even when not loaded. It’s a very regimented and time-honored system (the modern version of trapshooting dates back to the 19th century) that is almost foolproof. Eye and hearing protection are mandatory. Most competitions are held virtually, with scores added online to determine winners, so there’s not a lot of traveling with guns.
Anyone can shoot well
In addition to being safe, scholastic clay target shooting is an uncommonly inclusive scholastic sport. Athletic or physical skills aren’t needed to succeed.
“We have kids out there, succeeding, who’ve never had a desire to wear a football helmet or baseball glove,” says Hall, the Augusta head coach. “We have kids of all shapes and sizes on the team. This gives all kids a chance to be part of a high school team and spend some time outdoors.”
Hall tells of being approached by a father of an athletic teen made a paraplegic in a motocross accident, asking about possibly joining the team. They worked to get the boy situated at the shooting line.
“He hit, I think, 12 out of 25 targets. It was something,” says Hall. “He looked at me with a smile I’ll never, ever forget.”
Nelson says that nationally, 39% of clay target league student athletes don’t participate in any other sports. Unlike many school sports, there is no “making the team.” All who go out get to be on the team and shoot at every practice and competition. Practice is more important than pre-team experience. Coaches like Hall say even those who’ve never shot before can quickly become competitive, through good coaching and repetition in as many practices as possible.
Alex Nold shoots for the Piper High School team in Wyandotte County. As an eighth grader, he helped form the team despite having no organized trapshooting experience. When he graduated in May, Nold was among the elite shooters in Kansas.
“It basically comes down to who shoots enough shells, and practices enough to be good,” says Nold. “This is one of the few co-ed sports. Boys and girls compete together. Our top five always had one or two girls in it.”
Hall and Matt Farmer, another coach of Concordia’s team, say teams are open to students of any financial means. Their programs are largely supported by a variety of fundraising events, like chili feeds and raffles. Farmer says kids on the Concordia team earned points based on participation in those events. Those points equaled free ammunition or other needed equipment.
The coaches say money from the fundraisers paid for things like a season’s worth of targets, range fees (if not donated by others), and ammo. Hall says manufacturers sell shotgun shells to teams in bulk, at rates far below retail prices.
About 40% of Hall’s shooting team didn’t have a shotgun when practices began. A variety of options makes sure all on the team get to shoot. Many find a relative or family friend to lend them a shotgun. Conservation groups, like Ducks Unlimited, have donated shotguns to programs as have individuals. Farmer said most coaches own several and gladly loan them to team members.
Many students who decide to stick with the team soon get a shotgun of their own. Sometimes the students, themselves, find ways to fund a purchase.
“At least four of our boys were out mowing lawns or doing whatever they could, and saving every dollar, to buy a (inexpensive) shotgun,” says Hall. “It doesn’t take anything fancy to shoot trap. It’s good to see a kid breaking targets with something they worked to get. They can also still be using that same shotgun in 50 years.”
Life lessons at the shooting line
Rolland says her oldest daughter, Emma, has benefited in several major ways. The first time she shot, the sixth grader hit five of 25 targets.
“She really struggled at first, and I thought that was great,” says Rolland. “Facing a challenge is good. Now, she usually shoots around 20 out of 25. That’s taught her so much about perseverance.”
That average score places her high on the Baldwin City team, a solid competitor with the best of the boys.
“She’s always wanted to be a firefighter and this should give her confidence she will be able to make it in a male-dominated world,” says her mother.
Shooting trap is largely repetitive. Coaches say once a shooter masters the basics, it becomes a game of focus and an individual’s mental state.
“This sport teaches these kids mental toughness,” says Farmer, the Concordia coach.
“If they’re in a slump, they have to just shoot and shoot until they work it out. Eventually all these kids do work through those kinds of things. That does so much for their self-esteem and self-confidence.”
Young shooters who work hard enough can get the same school athletic letter as awarded in other sports. Colleges with shooting teams offer scholarships.
Youth set example for adults to “keep it classy”
In another difference with what has sadly become common in youth sports, shooters generally compete within a culture of encouragement.
“I’ve never heard anything negative or any kind of taunting. They all get along. Kids that don’t know each other will start talking,” says Robinson. “Kids who before didn’t feel like they belonged anywhere, now know they have friends at the trap range. That’s huge for a kid, to know they have that.”
Sarah Barlow, who participated in many sports at Lansing High School, is particularly appreciative of the bonhomie among trapshooters. She joined the team at Piper High School because Lansing did not have a team. She was immediately accepted and welcomed.
Kroells says most Kansas scholastic teams welcome students from schools that, at the time, don’t have teams.
“It’s more laid back in a lot of aspects,” says Barlow, who just graduated from Lansing. “I know like in softball, some of the girls get pretty mean. Everyone is nice and considerate on the trap team. People on other teams keep it classy too.”
Rolland says it’s a joy for parents to attend shoots because parents are as well behaved as the shooters.
“You don’t have parents screaming at an ump or heckling a coach,” she says. “It’s fun to see hundreds of parents, well, acting like adults at a sporting event. No conflicts. People are talking and sharing things. It’s a welcome change.”
Embracing recreational shooting, hunting
Getting youth involved in target shooting is far from new in Kansas.
Ray Bartholomew, Kansas 4-H interim shooting sports coordinator, says 4-H has sponsored youth shooting programs for at least 30 years in Kansas.
A Kansas chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters was the first within the organization to embrace hunting and recreational shooting for youth and mentors more than 20 years ago.
The Wichita-based group did so in 1999 largely to attract more outdoors-loving Kansans as mentors, says Mike Christensen, past director of the chapter’s outdoor mentoring program.
The decision drew protests from many Big Brothers Big Sisters programs around the nation.
He’s proud to say the program has largely silenced many who criticized the idea of firearms and kids.
Before their first hunt or trip to a target range, participants must pass the state hunter/shooting safety course. They are mentored closely at ranges and hunting locations.
“You can really see these kids change after they’ve been out a few times,” says Christensen. “They learn a lot they never would have learned staying home or in the cities.”
Kenny McCoy, a past Little Brother, joined the program in 2009, when he was 13.
“Man, every time I went out, it was something new and great in a great place,” says McCoy, now 26. “I can tell you straight up that’s what probably made a good man out of me. I learned the right things about firearms. I learned the importance of respect for nature, others and myself. Once you get a kid out there in the field, they do not want to leave.”
McCoy is currently an avid volunteer/mentor for the program. While helping coach a target team and mentoring on hunts, he works at recruiting youth from Wichita’s African American community.
As with scholastic clay target shooting, the safety record of the program is unblemished.
“We put probably 1,200 kids through the course, and we still haven’t had our first injury from hunting or shooting,” says Christensen. “It’s always the No. 1 priority.” He says it’s also not an anomaly.
Kansas has not had a hunting fatality for seven years, according to Kent Barrett, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks hunter education coordinator. Last year there were nine gun-related hunting accidents in Kansas, a state that federal surveys show can have up to five million hunter-days afield a year.
Eventually, Christensen created Pass It On Outdoors Mentors, so he could work with other states. The ties to Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters remain strong. They’re also working to get another prime group of young people afield through their Shooting Sports Outreach Program.
Since 2019, Christensen and staff have been organizing hunting experiences for school clay target teams in Kansas. The idea has proved popular.
Volunteers, opportunities a plenty
School shooting coaches happily acknowledge the support they get from parents and the local shooting community with fundraising, clerical work, range maintenance and coaching. Many coaches came to the sport when a child joined the team, then stayed after they graduated. Some past students have returned to coach.
When the Concordia team was formed, it had no place to shoot. That changed, quickly.
“In six weeks, we built a complete trap range,” says Farmer. “Once word got out, the community got behind it. We have grandstands, concrete walkways, nice throwers. And most came from donations. Community support for this team is so high up here.”
Dan Biehler, a volunteer coach at Kapaun Mt. Carmel, isn’t surprised target teams get such support. Kansas has many adults who grew up avid hunters and shooters. Many are quick to contribute to anything that paints target shooting in a positive light.
“When I was in school, we had guns in gun racks of a lot of pickup trucks. No big deal. Nobody shot up schools,” says Biehler. “Now we have all these shootings, and so many people wanting to ban guns. I’ve thought if they’d come and watch these school teams shoot, they might look at guns differently.”
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.