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Big numbers, big expectations

Alexandria’s Noah Boraas shoulders his shotgun during last Monday night’s practice at the Alexandria Shooting Park. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)1 / 2
Alexandria junior Kim Wilkins takes aim at a clay target during a cold evening at the Alexandria Shooting Park last Monday. Wilkins is one of seven girls out of 65 kids on this year’s shooting team for the Cardinals. (Eric Morken/Echo Press)2 / 2

Alexandria’s Kim Wilkins was admittedly nervous when she stepped to the shooting line for the first time as a member of the Alexandria trap shooting team last year.

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Her twin sister, Kerri, and she were the only two girls on a roster of 31 shooters for a program that was in its second year of existence. Kim’s nerves and inexperience showed early as she was busting around seven out of 25 clays a round.

By season’s end, she powdered 91 out of 100 at the state shoot to finish as the top female shooter and eighth best overall in the junior varsity division. Her score that day would have placed her second at the varsity level for female shooters.

“It really boosted my confidence because I started off last year not so hot,” Kim said before shooting a practice round at the Alexandria Shooting Park last Monday. “Coming into this year, I was a lot more confident. Practice in this sport, the more you shoot the better you get, so I just came out in the summer and practiced whenever I could.”

Wilkins is proof of the message that Alexandria head coach Scott Green wants every student to know – with practice and the proper form, anyone can turn themselves into a good shooter. It’s a message that more kids in the area are buying as the Cardinals’ shooting team has seen its numbers grow from seven, to 31 and now 65 shooters in grades 7-12 over the last three years.

“You might have a kid who isn’t that athletic and they can do this sport,” Sam Pederson, a freshman shooter on the team, said. “I think that’s one of the main reasons more people do it. I used to be in football and baseball, but I just kind of drifted away from them and into this.”

The shooting team in Alexandria is following a trend that has taken the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League (MSHSCTL) by storm over the past few years. At a time when many worry about the future of hunting and shooting sports, numbers in this relatively young league are booming.

The MSHSCTL started in 2001 with just three teams and 30 shooters. Those numbers stayed that way for almost seven years. Today, there are 185 teams from 275 schools and more than 6,100 shooters who participate statewide.

There are plenty of reasons for the increase in numbers. Students are talking to each other now in Alexandria about how much fun they have had the last couple years, and parents are also getting involved.

All the coaches in the Cardinals program are volunteers, while plenty of other parents donate their time to help in one way or another. Green is a lifelong shooter who has won a singles title of his own at the Minnesota State Trap Shoot, but that doesn’t compare to the satisfaction he gets from seeing the growth of this team.

“I live for this more than my own trap shooting,” Green said. “This is the best thing that I’ve seen. There are a lot of kids here who don’t have a chance to be in other sports and this is a sport that they can excel in, or at least try. All of them do very well. We don’t have anybody who I would call a poor shooter.”

Unlike most sports that are separated by gender and ability level, all the shooters compete against each other throughout the course of the year. Their average scores ultimately determine where they compete at the state tournament among novice, junior varsity and varsity divisions.

Guys, girls, athletic or not – all the shooters are on a level playing field. A few more female students from Alexandria are figuring that out with seven girls now on the team after the Wilkins sisters were the only two last season.

“There’s no gender gap here,” Green said. “Girls will shoot just as well as boys. This isn’t a strength game. It’s endurance a little bit, but if you can handle the gun, you can shoot it just as good as anyone else. That is the absolute truth.”

For those who are not in other sports, this offers the same opportunity to compete as any other sport. Alexandria freshman Gavin Greengo knows all about that. He gave up baseball to focus on the shooting team in the spring.

It’s not just a casual day at the range for all the kids during these meets. The nerves are the same as stepping to the plate in a key spot late in a baseball game when they approach the shooting line at a big competition.

“It’s pretty stressful,” Greengo said. “I get freaked out from coming to competitions and you see thousands of kids there that you’re shooting against. It’s kind of crazy.”

That’s the scene that an estimated 10,000 attendees, both shooters and spectators, will experience at the Alexandria Shooting Park June 6-10 when the local park hosts the MSHSCTL championship. The top 20 teams and 100 individuals from that will qualify for the MSHSL state tournament at the Minneapolis Gun Club in Prior Lake on June 14.

Alexandria was 10th as a team at the state shoot last season competing at the 4A level. The addition of new teams and shooters this year meant the league had to move to a five-class system. The Cardinals will compete at the 5A level against many teams from the metro area.

“I think we’re in a real good spot,” Green said. “We’re shooting against all the Twin Cities teams, which is exactly where we want to be, against Blaine, Wayzata and all those down there. We’ve got big enough numbers. We’ve got more area to shoot, and if I can convince the kids to come out and practice more, we will do very well.”

Green went over safety tips with his shooters at the start of last Monday’s practice before encouraging them to get out on the range as much as they can during the week. It doesn’t take much to convince most of these shooters to put in the extra work. Kids all over the state are finding out how fun it is to compete in this shooting sport, and how good they can get at it with practice.

“It’s so fun,” Wilkins said. “It’s grown so much, and it’s really cool to see everybody get better.”

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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