The start of the 2017-18 academic year brought with it the traditional fall sports seasons in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference; volleyball teams hit the court, football programs headed to the gridiron, soccer teams took to the pitch and golf squads teed off across the state. However, this past fall saw another sport take root in several MCAC member colleges; Clay Target/Trap League.
In an initiative pioneered by the NHED (Northeast Higher Education District) colleges of the MCAC: Hibbing CC, Itasca CC, Mesabi Range, Rainy River CC and Vermilion CC, as well as Lake Superior College in Duluth, Clay Target teams were formed at each member campus and began the fall for the first competitive intercollegiate season for the sport in Minnesota. By all accounts, the first season was a significant success and lays the groundwork for the sport at the college level for years to come.
The rise of Clay Target in the high school ranks is well chronicled, both in Minnesota and several other Midwestern states. According to a Pioneer Press report on May 30th, 2017, there are 343 teams in the Minnesota Clay Target League, which provides a competitive platform for over 11,000 high-school-aged participants in the land of 10,000 lakes.
This meteoric growth did not go unnoticed by college athletic directors and administrators around the Minnesota College Athletic Conference. Discussions regarding a competitive league as a pilot program in the MCAC began in 2016, and by the spring of 2017, several two-year colleges banded together to give it their best shot. The sport was a natural fit among the NHED schools, with campuses found in the Iron Range and Arrowhead region of the state, where high school clay target teams were already formed and thriving. However, interest was not limited to the rural campuses in communities such as Ely, International Falls and Hibbing. Lake Superior College is located in Duluth, one of the largest metro areas in Minnesota, and the IceHawks squad joined the NHED schools for the first season. And, while they did not participate in the pilot league this past fall, several colleges including Riverland Community College (Austin), Northland CTC (Thief River Falls), and Minnesota West CTC (Worthington) have been exploring the possibility of forming teams in the upcoming years.
On Tuesday, October 17th, the six MCAC colleges met in Grand Rapids, Minnesota for their season ending event. Over 100 student-athletes and coaches took part - and unique to Clay Target, - teams competed by ability and experience level, not gender or school size. Given the fact that only a handful of months were between the opening discussions of 'hey, we should try this' to rolling out a fully formed college league, the coaches, administrators and competitors have much of which to be proud.
The Minnesota College Athletic Conference notes that the help of Scholastic Clay Target Program, and the feedback of Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, located in Fennimore, Wisconsin, was integral in getting the league up and running. Mike Flaten, the athletic director at Hibbing Community College, noted that the fall season was "a great showcase for the hard work that the coaches and student-athletes put in to make this season happen. We had great support from our schools and it showed today."
According to Justin Lamppa, an athletic director and baseball coach at Itasca Community College, the first event was successful because "we had over 90 shooters involved and the student-athletes really enjoyed coming together on a beautiful fall day in Grand Rapids".
Grand Rapids Gun Club hosted the October 17th event, which was a new setting for many of the participants. One of the appeals of Clay Target is the fact that teams can compete against each other 'virtually', meaning that they will shoot at their home range during the week, and their scores are electronically tabulated against their selected opponent, who also competed at their home range. One rough comparison of the virtual model would be two golf teams competing against each other using the same computer-simulated course. In addition to the virtual competitions scored via computer, some teams also paired up to compete against each other in person over the course of the fall, when schedules and logistics permitted. The season-ending event in Grand Rapids allowed participants from each school to finally meet in person.
After the successful pilot program for the Clay Target league among the Minnesota College Athletic Conference this fall, executive director Peter Watkins is optimistic of the future of the sport at the college level. He cites three important factors in how the sport will gain a foothold in the college athletic departments; recruiting/retention, serving the community and economics. "All colleges, two-year and four-year, are looking for innovative ways to recruit and retain students. In higher education today, a potential college student can earn a degree by sitting at computer screen at home in their basement. Bricks-and-mortar colleges need to offer other ways to engage a student to their campuses beyond just the chance to earn a diploma. Clay Target teams, like other sports and co-curricular activities, are a great way to get more students on campus and then keep them engaged with a group of peers and adult coaches, which boosts retention."
Watkins goes on to note that the 'community' concept is important to MCAC schools as well.
"Clay Target teams utilize local sport-shooting clubs and those clubs are seeking a demographic that provides for growth and continued use of their facilities. Our student-athletes are from the local and regional area, as are our coaches. It allows for young adults to be a part of a sport and outdoor pursuit that tended to be seen as more geared towards older participants in the past. Having 17-22 year-old young adults outside, competing at their local facility is a positive in many respects for the local communities."
Additionally, "the chance for men and women to compete in the same sport, with the same rules, on an even playing field is important. When we look at Gender Equity and opportunities to improve Title IX compliance, Clay Target teams stand alone in that regard." Over 20 female student-athletes were a part of college current teams, and that number is likely to grow if MCAC teams mirror those at the high school level. In a Star Tribune article this past June that the vast majority of teams in Minnesota this past high school season competed in coed fashion.
Lastly, the economics of the sport are important to consider. Having teams with large rosters - Vermilion had 39 athletes on their inaugural squad - with the ability to compete against other teams without weekly travel saves colleges thousands on transportation costs. With the significant investment from entities outside the colleges, funding sources are more broad for Clay Target than most other start-up sporting endeavors. In speaking with Greg Thompson, an outdoor pursuits author and expert in Minnesota, "The sport shooting clubs are already there and looking to attract new participants; colleges do not have to build or retrofit a new space or field. Companies such as Cabela's have invested grant dollars specifically in the growth of the sport in the high schools, so community college teams are at a (natural intersection) point of non-profit and commercial growth, from an economic perspective." Furthermore, Watkins notes that the chance to engage new a new population in the athletic departments of colleges allows, "schools to expand their 'brand' and school pride to a whole new population in and around their communities. The Clay Target student-athletes - and their families - are connecting with the school, buying sweatshirts, coming onto campus more often, learning about the education options at the colleges, much like we see in other sport populations."
Watkins points out that other sports in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference have found unique 'niche' markets in higher education. Several MCAC baseball and volleyball teams have student-athletes from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, football teams across the MCAC recruit from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida and other far-flung locales and the league boasts several standout female student-athletes from places ranging from Tucson, Arizona to Camrose, Alberta. "Folks in higher education speak often about the shrinking traditional college demographic of 18-22-year-olds in the Upper Midwest and how it affects our industry. I think our colleges should be commended for being able to build sustaining student populations by recruiting across a wide spectrum of markets. We have student-athletes from the metro Twin Cities, the Virgin Islands, Chicago, Florida and almost all other points on the map. Clay Target is now allowing our schools to attract many area students to stay local, enroll at their hometown college and pursue a degree. This results in sitting in classes with others from all over the state, region and hemisphere. In the end, that important piece of the educational process can't be overlooked."
One other component of the attractiveness of the sport is a connection to the academic programs found at many MCAC campuses. Degrees in Wildlife Management, Environmental Studies/Conservation, Outdoor Recreation and Gunsmithing/Firearms Technology are found at schools across the Minnesota State system, and seem to go hand-in-hand with the evolution of the college version of the sport.
The NHED colleges and the rest of the Minnesota College Athletic Conference will meet again this winter to discuss and plan what the next steps are for the emerging sport. Among the expected agenda topics includes pursing formal recognition as a varsity sport in the MCAC. It would be a natural progression, as is ways in which to better promote and sustain squads at current and event new colleges such as Alexandria Technical College, Pine Technical College and Southwest Wisconsin Technical College.
Looking around the corner, the Conference may apply to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) for recognition of the sport at that level. Watkins reports, "The NJCAA currently recognizes some emerging sports such as Half-Marathon, Bowling and others, so perhaps our league and other Conferences that have teams like Southwest Technical College in Wisconsin and the schools in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference to bring this forward."
Currently however, the Minnesota College Athletic Conference will seek to grow and strengthen the platform on which they compete in Minnesota. With the number of high school Clay Target athletes looking to approach 12,000 in the state of Minnesota alone for 2018, and thousands more in the Dakota's and Wisconsin, it is likely that the sport will remain on the radar of many MCAC community colleges.
For more information on the sport of Clay Target/Trap Shooting among schools in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference, please visit the MCAC Clay Target Page.
About the Minnesota College Athletic Conference
The Minnesota College Athletic Conference is the organizational body for NJCAA-affiliated two-year technical and community college athletic programs in the Minnesota State system. The mission of the Minnesota College Athletic Conference is to advance intercollegiate athletics by providing an engaging and supportive environment for success of our student athletes and competition among member institutions. The MCAC is committed to the guiding principles of encouraging the development and success of student athletes, promoting the integrity, honesty and loyalty to member schools as well as upholding the sustainability of conference athletic programs.