Shooting trap for Lake of the Woods High School in Baudette isn't a hobby or pastime.
There's no tryouts, per se, and kids sign up as early as sixth grade. But to join the team, they must strive to be the best.
The two other requirements for making the club are passing a gun safety course and paying the $210 annual activity fee — a sum that hasn't gone up since the team was created 11 years ago with welcoming arms from the local rod and gun club.
"Our kids are hypercompetitive and their coaches are, too,'' said Bob Laine, the Bears' head coach.
The longtime high school teacher and multisport coach is taking 18 of his clay target shooters this week to Alexandria for the Minnesota State High School Clay Target League's open shooting competition. The nine-day event, ending Tuesday, features 7,900 high schoolers from 329 teams around the state.
The Bears will be worth watching. For the first time in team history, five athletes made the all-state team by ranking in the top 100 shooters in the state. That puts them in the 99.8th percentile of their peer group. The most accurate of the Bears' sharpshooters is a freshman, Andrew Higgins, who won "high gun'' honors en route to the Bears' conference title this year. Johanna Birchem, one of the Bears' five all-staters, won "high gun'' honors among girls in the conference.
In the past four years, the team from Baudette achieved two first-place finishes in conference play and two second-place finishes. They hail from a part of the state, along the Canadian border, where kids are intense about high school trap shooting and communities deliver broad support.
"This has been a wonderful thing for our kids and it's probably kept our gun range open,'' Laine said. "The kids work hard and our community support for them is crazy.''
Lake of the Woods County has been a perennial backer with grant money for the trap program and the sheriff's department is covering some of this week's team travel costs from designated proceeds raised from the issuance of pistol-carrying permits.
"All you hear is negative stuff, and this is actually positive,'' said Greg Mortenson, owner of Outdoors Again, a hunting and fishing retail store on Main Street in Baudette. "It kind of brings the whole community together.''
Mortenson supplies the Bears with shotgun shells, clay targets, and shotguns at or below cost. The target loads have been scarce, so he sets aside shipments for the team a year in advance to safeguard a supply.
"Those kids are our future and this sport teaches them responsibility and respect,'' Mortenson said. "It's just a super organization.''
Roughly 800 high school students per day are shooting clay targets in Alexandria. Each shooter gets a crack at 100 clays, lofted one at a time, 25 per session. It's not rare in any given session to see at least one competitor strike all 25 clays. On Tuesday, for instance, Paige Burns of Goodridge High School in Pennington County placed first overall in Class 1A by missing only two of 100 shots on the day.
The competition in Alexandria is crucial as a qualifying event for teams. Only the top 40 teams — regardless of class— advance to the ultimate championships in Prior Lake sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League. The defending state championship team is Red Wing and this year's tournament is set for June 24 at the Minneapolis Gun Club in Prior Lake.
Individuals win bids to the state championship by making the all-state team before open shooting in Alexandria.
Baudette and Roseau are 60 miles apart and their high school trap teams play in different conferences. They're not enemies, but each squad has a different local rival. As in high school hockey and other sports, Roseau battles Warroad. Baudette, meanwhile, engages each year in a "Border Battle" contest with the trap team from International Falls. In this year's match, the Broncos came from 20 points behind to beat the Bears by 11. Laine said neither team has ever won back-to-back Border Battles. The trap teams from International Falls and Warroad also are competing in Alexandria.
Roseau coach Troy Weiland, whose team won a national trap shooting title in 2019, said the four trap teams from the northern border certainly look at each others' scores during the year, especially when qualifying for bids to Prior Lake. But there's also some fellowship in terms of "bringing the hardware home to the north,'' he said.
"We shoot and shoot and shoot,'' Weiland said. "As long as they want to shoot, we are there providing the time.''
It's been gratifying for him as a coach to see alumni return to Roseau's trap range to help team members hone their skills. The Rams have been known to start practice at 4 p.m. and blast clay "birds" until dark. The Rams take a lot of pride in traveling to shoot in tournaments, Weiland said. At Alexandria, the team roster is flush with 32 entrants.
"When Roseau shows up for a shoot, gol dang it, we are going to make our best run at it,'' the coach said. "If we can do that year in and year out … that's great.''