Maggie Horan craddled her 20-gauge shotgun, took aim at the orange clay target that flew through the air, and squeezed the trigger.
Bam! The disk exploded. Maggie, 14, of Edina, smiled.
"It's a lot different than dance," the ninth-grade ballet dancer said after she broke 12 of 25 clay targets while shooting trap last week at the Minneapolis Gun Club in Prior Lake. Her 30-member Edina Trap and Skeet Team -- formed this year -- recently began its first season of competition, joining 28 other Minnesota schools.
Maggie is a newcomer to shotgunning, but a quick study.
"That's one of my best rounds," she said. "It's fun."
While many Minnesota high schools have been forced to slash programs and boost fees in the face of serious budget woes, the fledgling Minnesota State High School Clay Target League is, well, booming. Maggie's team is one of 16 new squads this year. Last year, 243 students at 13 schools competed.
"This year, we have 29 schools and more than 700 students," said Jim Sable, the league director. He expects participation to double next year.
"We're probably the fastest growing sport in the state," said Sable, 72, of Plymouth, a firearms safety instructor, shooter and tireless shooting sports advocate. Concerned about an aging population at gun ranges, he launched the league 10 years ago.
The recent growth is more remarkable considering the percentage of young hunters and anglers nationwide has been declining -- a trend blamed on urbanization and competition for leisure time with computers, televisions and other electronics.
Said Sable: "We have three priorities: No. 1 is safety. No. 2 is fun. And No. 3 is marksmanship."
Sport is exploding
The league is flourishing for several reasons, he said:
• Social media has boosted interest. "The kids who shoot communicate with one another on Facebook, and pretty soon more kids want to get in."
• Shooting is a "gender neutral" sport. Girls shoot alongside boys. Normally, if a school adds a boys' sport, it has to add a girls' sport for balance. "That's not an issue with trapshooting," Sable said. Last year, a girl, KayCee Nelson of White Bear Lake, was the top high school trapshooter in the state, breaking 100 out of 100 clays at the state championship.
• It doesn't cost schools money. "The kids pay for it," Sable said. Some conservation, civic and sports groups help pay the costs in some communities.
• Physical abilities aren't essential. "They don't have to be athletic to become good shooters," Sable said.
For now, shooting is considered a club sport and isn't part of the Minnesota State High School League. But students can earn letters, just as they do with other sports. The 10-week season began recently. Except at the state meet, students don't compete face-to-face -- they shoot weekly with their teams and their scores are recorded. Youths in grades six to 12 can compete; all must first complete firearms safety training.
Scott Danielson, 48, an avid hunter and shooter, lives in Edina. When he heard about the clay target league, he volunteered to form a team and coach it. His two sons -- Ryan, a 10th-grader, and Eric, an eighth-grader -- signed up.
"My kids love to hunt and shoot, and I thought what a great idea. I wanted kids to have the opportunity to learn shooting sports. And it gets them outside -- away from the computer. I figured if we got a dozen kids, that would be great."
Instead, Danielson had to limit the roster to 30. "We have a waiting list," he said.
Kids each pay $240, which includes shotgun shells, clay targets, association fees and a T-shirt. "It's one of the cheapest sports they can participate in," Danielson said.
For Maggie Horan, it's a new and unique experience.
"My mom saw a flier [on the league] and pushed me to try it," she said. "I'm glad she did."
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org