Jim Sable didn’t plan to start a trap shooting revolution.
But he did.
And now, 18 years after sowing its seeds, the founder of the Minnesota High School Clay Target League is retired again, this time from a national organization whose success has shattered long-held conventions about guns, teens and schools.
“I retired at age 62 but apparently didn’t have the knack for it,” joked the 80-year-old visionary from Plymouth. “This time my wife hopes I succeed.”
As knacks go, it’s hard to fathom what the recently retired Sable and his supporters accomplished. Since founding the high school clay target league in 2008, thousands upon thousands of Minnesota teens have shouldered shotguns in hopes of busting a flying target. Last year, for example, nearly 12,000 Minnesota teens competed on 349 clay target teams. Roughly 8,000 of these student athletes participated in a state championship in Alexandria, the largest trap shooting event in the world. Nationally, some 30,000 students are expected to compete this year in the USA High School Clay Target League, the successor of Sable’s original organization. The USA league was formed in 2012 because other states wanted to replicate what was happening in Minnesota.
“Yes, the growth has been amazing but so too are the athletes,” said Sable. “Many are not only excellent shots but excellent ambassadors for the sport.” He said Lia Nelson, a junior at Ada-Borup High School in the Red River Valley, is a perfect example. Last year the 16-year-old placed 28th among the 1,300 best league shooters in the country. This year the Marsh River 4-H Club member will help fellow 4-Hers with firearms training and teach a self-organized firearms shooting class for women at the Perley, Minn., gun club.
“This may sound odd but when I first saw Mr. Sable at a tournament I ran to him because I wanted to have a picture of the two of us,” said Nelson. “I thanked him for starting the league and getting kids involved. I didn’t love trap shooting at first, but I discovered over time that I was pretty good at it, and then it became my passion. I never would have known this if our school hadn’t started a team.”
Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Sable:
On sowing the first seed
I’ve long been a member of the Plymouth Gun Club, which back in 2001 started an after-school youth mentoring program. We did this because the average age of our members was getting up there and we hadn’t been able to recruit many younger adults. As divine providence would have it, our decision came at the same time the Orono School District’s outreach coordinator Maryanna Massey placed an ad in the Sunday bulletin at my church seeking volunteer mentors. I was recently retired so I went to her office the very next morning. I told her what I’d like to do. She said, “Perfect. I have a 14-year-old girl who wants to learn trap shooting.” That one mentee led to two and then four and then enough for a whole team. Next we reached out to nearby schools — Wayzata, Minnetonka and Hopkins — and helped them form teams so we could hold competitions. In 2008 the Minnesota State High School League sanctioned our efforts because student interest was growing and we had met all required policies and procedures.
On listening to kids
I once heard former Gov. Elmer Andersen say, “If someone is willing to tell you what they want, you ought to be smart enough to give it to them.” It was good advice then. It’s good advice now. So, we listened to kids as we put the league together. They told us they would join if they could earn a letter and get their team photo in the school yearbook. We made sure those things happened. Those were key to early success.
On communicating with skeptics
There were plenty of people who never thought schools would sanction a shooting sport, but I just stayed focused on the facts. As I faced a school board or some other group, I’d say, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a sport in which boys, girls and adaptive students could participate on the same team and being big, strong, fast or having a high grade-point average wasn’t necessarily an advantage. And better yet, kids wouldn’t get hurt from concussions, ankle sprains, ACL injuries and the like. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” And when heads nodded “yes,” I would say, “Well, that’s clay target shooting.” Today, clay target shooting is toward the top of more than 40 different Minnesota high school sports and activities. It has more participants than boys and girls hockey combined, boys soccer, tennis, golf, skiing, swimming and many other traditional sports. Minnesota clay target team members shot 7 million shells during the 2018 season. Isn’t that amazing?
On navigating bureaucracy
I am indebted to Dave Stead, the longtime executive director of the Minnesota State High School League who retired in 2017. He provided my assistant John Nelson and me with very practical advice, which was a huge help. He knew the landscape — how activities directors think, how school boards function and why some proposals succeed and others don’t — and we listened closely. The big takeaway was that students determine what their school activities will be, not well-meaning adults. Though some people view high school trap shooting as an overnight success story, rest assured for many years I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall.
On retiring for a second time
I am looking forward to slowing down. My wife has reminded me that I can’t live forever and that we have a bucket list that’s been largely ignored. So, we’ll be dusting off the bucket list and maybe, after nearly 20 years of retirement, I will finally get around to building a bird house.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.