SOUTH BEAVER TWP., Pa. — Bella Neal puts the gun to her shoulder. “Pull!” she said.
An orange disc flies out of a bunker 16 yards in front of her. She shoots. The disc explodes. She calmly lowers her gun to reload, putting the empty shell in a pocket on the back of her vest. The boy beside her lines up to take his shot.
Bella and her team from Harrison County, Ohio traveled to a small sportsman’s club in Beaver County, Pennsylvania to compete in an invitational trap shoot on Aug. 19 that drew more than 120 middle and high school students from 10 teams.
“Let me brag on her a little bit because she’s my granddaughter,” said Doug Neal. He’s sitting in a folding chair in the shade behind where Bella’s squad is shooting. He’s one of the coaches for the team. “She started shooting two years ago and qualified for nationals. She was 416th in the nation. She just missed the final round.”
The Harrison Central team took six kids to nationals this past year. Pretty good for a team that started just a year ago.
Clay target shooting is one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the country. The U.S. Clay Target League grew from 30 participants on three teams in 2007 to 43,009 participants on 1,466 teams in 34 states, according to the group’s website.
No one knows exactly why the sport is growing so rapidly but Ron Neff, organizer for the event and coach for the Western Beaver Trap Shooting team, has an idea. Shooting sports are inclusive, safe and co-ed. At the invitational, there were country kids in boots, jeans and camo hats and others wearing shorts, athletic shoes and visors.
“It’s an outlet for kids that don’t fit in the traditional football, basketball, baseball mold,” he said. “It’s safer than bowling. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can compete in this league. If you have asthma, you can compete here.”
The teams came from across eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to compete at the 2nd Annual Western Pennsylvania Youth Outdoorsman Invitational shoot, hosted at the Beaver Falls Sportmen’s Association. Registration for the event doubled from last year, Neff said. The youngest shooter was 9. The oldest was 18. Teams came from Beaver Local, North Ridgeville, Evans City, Yough, New Springfield, Monroe Central, Grand Valley, Central Valley and Colonel Crawford.
Neff anticipates registration will double again next year and the event may need to become two days to accommodate all the interested students. More than $5,000 in prizes and awards were given away at this year’s invitational.
The event supports the non-profit Neff started, Western Pennsylvania Youth Outdoorsman. He started the group after he realized the interest in youth shooting sports was quickly outgrowing the sportsman’s club the invitational started at. The group’s aim is to promote youth development in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio through outdoor shooting sports. It started with trap shooting, but Neff hopes to expand soon to a 3-D archery team.
All a person needs to get started is a firearm, usually a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun, safety glasses, ear protection and ammunition.
There are some kids out there with “a shotgun their grandpa gave them,” Neff said. “And there are kids shooting out here with 8- or 9-thousand-dollar guns.”
Kids sometimes get started with a hand-me-down field gun, a gun meant for shooting once at an animal, but move up to a sporting gun later on. Sporting guns are meant to put lots of rounds through and don’t kick as hard, Neff said.
Neff tells his students who are starting out not to judge whether they like the sport based on the gun they’re using. They can always upgrade. An entry-level sporting gun costs around $500, he said.
Shooting trap is done on a specialized shooting range. There is a trap house at the front where the clay targets are launched. Behind it are five shooting stations, laid out like a fan behind the trap house.
Each person takes five shots at each station. After five shots are taken, the shooters rotate to a new station and take five more shots. This continues until each shooter has taken 25 shots, the same number of shells available in a box of ammunition. That’s one round.
The five people on a range are called a squad. At the invitational, some squads were made up of a person’s teammates but other squads were mixed between several teams. Teams are scored individually and as a team.
The expensive part of the sport is ammunition. Because you shoot a box of shells each round, you’re using multiple boxes each event and during practices. A box of shells costs anywhere from $8-$15 but the costs add up over time, Neff said.
Gun safety is key. All student-athletes in the U.S. Clay Target League must complete a firearm safety course, either the state-approved hunter education course or the league’s in-house training, and submit certification to their respective team before participating in shooting activities.
Doug Neal, a longtime trap shooter, said if you’d asked him five years ago about the state of trap shooting and youth interest in shooting sports, he’d have told you he was worried.
“But these high school teams are bringing this sport back to life,” he said. Part of that is because of new support for the sport from school districts. While the schools aren’t eager to fully fund these teams quite yet, they are getting approval as club sports in many cases.
Neff reformed the Western Beaver team this year. There are 30 students on it from a handful of other school districts in Beaver County.
Harrison Central’s team was approved by the school district this past year. There are 12 students on the team; 10 of them attended the invitational in Beaver County.
“We’re pretty small potatoes, but we’re so proud of them,” Neal said. “She’s shot more 25s in the last three months than I’ve shot in my career,” he added, referring to his granddaughter.
The reason Bella Neal likes shooting trap is pretty simple. She likes guns, and she likes seeing the clay targets shatter in the air, spreading out into a thousand tiny pieces. It’s satisfying in a way that’s hard to describe.
“I like seeing the explosion of the clay,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Although she’s on her own, relying on her own skill to hit the target, she likes the team aspect of the sport.
Bella and her teammates give each other fist bumps down the line as they switch stations. They talk through problems between rounds.
“We just try to support each other,” she said.
(Editor Rachel Wagoner can be reached at email@example.com or 724-201-1544.)
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