By David McCoy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The fastest growing high school sport in Minnesota isn’t played with a ball or a puck — it’s played with a gun.

It isn’t hard to explain the sport’s rapid burst in popularity.

“I love shooting guns,” said Nick Viertel, a senior at St. Croix Lutheran. “Shooting guns and breaking clays.”

The Minnesota State High School Clay Target League set yet another new record this year, with 8,600 students participating statewide. That’s 2,500 more than last year, and 4,400 more than the year before that.

St. Croix Lutheran is one of 83 new high school teams across the state that are launching this year.

“Some hunting background, some of it’s trying new things,” Viertel said. “It’s a newer sport, and some people want to try something else.”

It’s relatively simple to learn. Mastering it is the tricky part.

“I always put my gun up and then look over the barrel, and then I call, ‘Pull,’ Viertel said. “Then you want to follow through with your shot. You get your target in sight, and then usually go past it, because the bird will collide with your shot.”

Like a quarterback would lead a receiver with a pass, you don’t shoot at the target — you shoot where the target’s going to be.

Even Jim Sable, the executive director of the state Clay Target League, couldn’t have imagined how far the sport would come when he thinks about where it was around the year 2000.

“Ten percent of the clubs in the state had gone out of business,” he said. “There were another 10 percent that were hanging on by a thread.”

Membership at Minnesota’s gun clubs was drawn mostly from the older generations.

“We said, ‘Well, we have to find a way of attracting young people to the sport, if it’s going to survive,'” Sable said.

So Sable went to where the young people are: the schools. That went about as well as you might imagine.

“The comment that I heard over and over again in the beginning was, ‘Guns are just too dangerous. We’ll never have our kids involved with guns,'” he said.

But one school, Orono, signed on. Then two more. For its first eight years, the league had just three teams. In 2009, it doubled to six.

It was slow going at first, but it took off from there, and it wasn’t the adults behind the boom. It was the kids.

“What I discovered is that an athletic director can say no to me very easily,” he said with a laugh. “Six or seven kids from his own school, it’s a little tougher.”

Each participant has to take a firearms safety course before competing.

The league has had zero accidents in 14 years.

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