On a range north of Lyons, Caleb Murphy has finally found his sport.

The Sterling High School senior isn't out for basketball or football. But the avid deer hunter is now a rising star as a competitive shooter.

"I wanted to do something after school other than go home and do nothing," the 18-year-old said of his and friends' efforts to get the sport of clay target shooting started at Sterling.

He is one of thousands of high school competitors across the Midwest participating in trap shooting - a sport that a decade ago was nonexistent in most of the country's high schools.

But on this night in early April, he watched with the other students mingling behind the firing line as classmates aimed at clay targets at the Rice County Sportsman's Club. There are 30 of them on the newly formed team - a group of students all with the same interests. 

"I really enjoy it," Caleb said. "The best part is hitting the clay and watching it explode."

More than 350 Kansas high schoolers are drawing their shotguns this spring, part of 19 schools participating in the inaugural year of the Kansas High School Clay Target League.

Other schools include Wichita Collegiate, Andover and Chaparral in Harper County, along with Dodge City, Cimarron, Nickerson and Chase.

Moreover, said John Nelson, vice president of the state league, he wouldn't be surprised to see 50 schools and nearly a thousand students participating in the sport by next year. In Minnesota, where the high school sport first started, trap shooting is outpacing other sports in terms of growth.

"Since the inception of the league, we have had more than 24,000 kids in the program who have pulled the trigger more than 12 million times and never had a single injury," he said, adding that isn't true in other sports. In Minnesota, he said, "There is even more kids shooting trap than high school girls' and boys' hockey combined."

Surpasses hockey in Minnesota

But how, in a day and age where schools are sensitive to guns, did such a sport blossom?

Nelson, of Minnesota, said he was part of the first discussion, which started around a kitchen table in 2001. A man named Jim Sable started the program with one youth mentor, but began to talk to different schools about introducing kids to clay target shooting. 

The first few years, 30 youths were participating. By 2010, roughly 350 kids  were involved. And this year, Minnesota has 320 teams with 10,300 youths. It's not a sanctioned sport, but in Minnesota the league's state tournament is sanctioned by the Minnesota High School Athletics Association.

Now, the league is in 12 states. Nelson said league officials happened to meet the Andover High School principal, who told them he'd like to bring the sport to Kansas.

What sells the program to schools is its track record, he said. Not only is it safe - all students must learn how to handle a gun and pass hunter's education - but it also involves all youths - regardless of size, height or gender.

"About 35 percent of students don't participate in other sports," Nelson said. "If it wasn't for this, what else would they be doing? It's the only sport that a kid in a wheelchair can shoot alongside the boys and girls."

Moreover, adult mentors are a big part of the program. Teams must have one coach per 10 students.

"Probably the best thing is that kids are learning about firearms and how to handle them safely," Nelson said. "Do you want kids learning about guns in school or in the street?"

Student-driven

On a recent evening near Lyons, it was easy to see the enthusiasm, the camaraderie and the instruction.

Sterling students lined up five at a time, taking their turn trying to hit the clay targets, which shoot out like a Frisbee. 

Sophmore Alley Rowland slipped on her glasses and vest, then grabbed her gun for her second round of shooting. 

"No misses," Dennis Vincent, a substitute teacher from Sterling and a team coach, said encouragingly. "Find the target and break it."

He admitted he had no idea how popular the sport would be at Sterling when students first approached him about their idea. To have 30 students out for the league in a school of 175 students is amazing.

But it was the students who led the drive for the program at Sterling, said Vincent. A group had learned about the league on the Internet and approached physical education teacher Jill Rowland, Alley's mother. 

Knowing Vincent is a member of the Rice County Sportman's Club, they also ask him about target shooting.

"I told them target shooting can be expensive and you have to have a place to do it," Vincent said.

The group didn't give up. They approached the principal, who brought it up in a school in-service day.

Knowing that many of the students behind the push weren't involved in any other school activities, teachers began to asking themselves how they could better reach their students, Vincent said. 

"It is the only extracurricular activity they do," Vincent said. "They don't do sports. They don't do forensics, drama or things of that nature."

The Sterling school board approved the league in December. It doesn't cost the school, however, said Rowland, also a coach. Most students are bringing their own guns and the team has had fundraisers.

Other donations began to pour in, too. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism donated $450 toward the program and the Rice County Quail Forever chapter gave $50 per student - all of which helps cover league fees, shells and targets, said Sterling science teacher Dan Whisler, who also mentors the team. They go through about 1,500 bullets at the team's weekly practice and meet. 

Most recently, the school received a $4,256 grant through the National Rifle Association, which will help the team buy three shotguns, a pallet of clay targets, shotgun shells, 25 vests and 15 shell pouches, Whisler said.

Also, Rice County residents began to hear about the league and gave private donations, as well, said Vincent. Meanwhile, the Rice County Sportsman's Club allows the team, along with one from Chase, to use its facilities for a nominal fee.

Senior Macreedy Kocher, who helped organize the league as part of her senior project, said she is having a shoot in late April to raise funds.

Also, said Rowland, for those not already involved in high school sports, the new activity encourages team members to maintain a good GPA in order to get to shoot. 

"We are meeting a need," said Rowland.

Friendly competition

For now, the teams from Sterling and Chase meet every Monday at the Rice County range. Each member gets two rounds of 25 targets. Meets are virtual, with weekly scores, results and top performers tabulated on the association's website. 

Everyone will compete together at the state tournament, which will take place on June 4, Whisler said.

But while it is a team sport, it gets competitive, said Debi Schmidt, 15.

Debi, a freshman, had just finished her second round on this Monday evening. She has been around hunting all her life, she said, tagging along with her dad, Clark, an area farmer who guides hunters through the family's hunting business.

Just the previous evening, she had shot her first turkey, she said.

"I was pretty nervous," she said. "I was shaking like a leaf."

While involved in basketball, cross country and track, she wanted to be on the clay target team - a shooting sport is something she's been around all her life. 

On this night, she shot 18 out of 25 the first round, and 15 out of 25 the second round. 

The girls are outshooting some of the boys, she said with a laugh. After all, unlike some sports, they are all on a level playing field.

"I like shooting better than the boys, get to show them how it is done," Debi said. "They can't give you crap anymore about being better than you."

Vincent said it has been great watching the youths improve each week.

"We think the program is off to a good start and will continue to grow," he said. "The kids, for one, are having a lot of fun."