We live in an era in which there are more and more sports popping up on the high school athletic scene that venture beyond the mainstream world of football, basketball and baseball.
The Illinois High School Association now sanctions competition in water polo and lacrosse. A few years ago it added bass fishing. We’ve heard a lot about the evolution of competitive video gaming, aka esports.
The fastest growing of the relatively new high school sports endeavors? In the upper Midwest, it apparently is trapshooting.
And nowhere is that movement stronger than in the Quad-Cities.
It’s a sport where the cost to compete obviously isn’t cheap, and we’re in a time when the anti-gun movement seems more vigilant than ever, but an activity that puts firearms in the hands of teenagers is taking off in a big way.
"It hasn’t really slowed down," said Eric Long, who oversees one of the best high school trapshooting programs in the country at North Scott High School. "Iowa has the most kids registered in the scholastic clay target program in the nation. I think we’re at about 4,300 (participants). …
"We continually grow every year."
Those numbers pale in comparison to the number of athletes in most mainstream sports, but it’s still significant.
A story on a website called wideopenspaces.com reported that there now are more high school students in Minnesota competing in trapshooting than in hockey. That state has had a high school trapshooting league since 2000, and it claims to have more participants than Iowa — more than 300 teams and 11,000 total competitors.
This also is big in Wisconsin, where close to 2,000 kids competed this spring in the Wisconsin State High School Clay Target League.
North Scott right now has the dominant program in Iowa. It won state championships in four of five possible categories over the past few weeks and will take 12 shooters to the Scholastic Clay Target Program national championships in Marengo, Ohio, July 14-21.
The school has had a trapshooting team for eight years, but it really has taken off in the past few years.
The Lancers won the skeet shooting state title in Waukee and the sporting clays competition in Pella — two events it took up only three years ago — and won two of three state trapshooting championships in Cedar Falls.
Long’s son, Eric Jr., has earned a full scholarship to shoot at Iowa Central Community College, but the Lancers are actually very balanced. In the recent state trapshooting competition, Eric Long Jr. finished first in the senior/varsity division with a score of 148, but there was a three-way tie for second at 147 between three other North Scott shooters — Thomas Keeshan, Jaydon Biles and Drew Baxter.
"I’m fortunate to have the kind of depth that not many programs in the nation have of athletes that are able to compete at that high level," Long said. "My top 12 varsity athletes in the singles division probably shoot within a target-and-a-half out of 100 of each other. Their averages are very, very close."
Long is quick to point out that his isn’t the only strong program in the area.
"You’ve got a great bunch of programs on this side of the state with Pleasant Valley and Bettendorf and Maquoketa," he said. "There’s a lot of great programs that have a lot of great athletes."
North Scott has about 70 students in its trapshooting program, 34 of whom competed at state. Maquoketa had 29 entries in the state tournament, Pleasant Valley 25, Davenport Youth Trap (combining all three Davenport public high schools) 21, Wilton 19, Easton Valley 17, Bettendorf 13 and Camanche 9.
At last year’s nationals, North Scott, Pleasant Valley, Easton Valley and Maquoketa all finished first in at least one division.
Long said he has seen the quality of competition rise dramatically in recent years. A few years ago, there usually would be only one or two shooters in the entire state who would go through the Iowa spring season with a perfect score. Last year there were 11 (eight of them from North Scott). This year there were 22.
"They’re evolving and getting more competitive," Long said. "The kids are definitely enjoying the competitive aspect."
He understands that the growth of this sport may be disconcerting to some people outside the gun community. It’s worrisome to have people so young wielding weapons so dangerous.
But the stated objective of the Iowa Scholastic Clay Target Program, administered by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, is to "instill life skills such as discipline, safety, teamwork, ethics, mental focus, self-discipline and self-confidence in Iowa’s youth."
"We promote proper firearm handling and etiquette and safety," added Long, who is a member of the advisory board for the ISCTP. "That’s first and foremost in everything we do. For our kids, the shotguns that they use are basically a tool, like a baseball bat or anything else to any other athlete, and they treat them as such."
If nothing else, the sport is offering one more extracurricular outlet for students.
And that’s never a bad thing.
"We’ve got kids who are involved in other activities, and some are involved in no other activities," Long said. "I think it gives a young person who isn’t maybe a football player or wrestler or softball player another avenue to compete and participate at whatever level they choose. We have kids that just come to practice all the way up to the ultra-competitive ones who want to go to nationals."