Anthony O’Connell has been firing shotguns since he was a toddler.
“My dad used to take me duck hunting almost every day when I was little. So he had me shooting a 12-gauge when I was about two years old,” the Redding Christian sophomore said.
You can imagine his excitement when he found out his school was starting a trap shooting club.
“I thought it was probably one of the coolest things ever to be able to shoot guns for your school and it be OK,” he said on a bright Sunday at the Redding Gun Club.
Redding Christian is one of the latest local schools to venture into the realm of competitive shooting, a sport that’s gaining traction nationwide. The number of high school participants more than doubled from 2015 to 2018, a recent report found.
Now, the trend is hitting Redding. Foothill was the first area team to start up last year, and U-Prep and Redding Christian joined the initiative this spring.
How the sport works
For those unfamiliar with shooting terminology, a trap is the name for the device that launches a clay disk, or pigeon, into the air before it is, ideally, blown to smithereens by a proficient marksman.
The unconventional sport is regulated not by the California Interscholastic Federation (which oversees sports like football and softball), but by the USA Clay Target League.
So technically, it’s accurate to refer to the local groups as clubs, rather than teams, even though they compete against other California schools like in any other typical high school sport.
Unlike most sports, there are no home and away matchups. Each week, a team will visit its local range before taking aim at the targets. Coaches record students’ accuracy scores and enter them online. From there, the league compiles the results and shows where each team ranks among its division.
How the league caught on in Redding
Foothill coach Bob Price, a longtime member of the Redding Gun Club, gets most of the credit for bringing the sport to Shasta County.
“I just noticed that there was a need for us to basically try and get kids out of the living room playing Xbox,” he said, “and teach them outdoor skills that we used to learn.”
Price said it took three years to turn that observation into a reality. First, he had to get clearance from Foothill’s athletic director, principal, school board and other administrators.
“Obviously, there’s gonna be an uphill battle when you start bringing in the sport of competitive shooting into a public school,” he said.
After he had several lengthy conversations about safety and assured administrators that guns will never be on school property, Price’s project started to take shape.
What about safety concerns?
Safety was the dominant theme at a late-March orientation at the Redding Gun Club. Lessons on where to point the gun and when to load it were demonstrated in front of students from each of the three school clubs involved.
“(There are) no wounds that are gonna heal from a shotgun,” an outside instructor told 40 to 50 students. “If you get hit, you’re in trouble. So be careful at all times.”
Before shooting in a club event, the organization requires students to earn a “league-approved firearm safety certificate,” which includes taking a three-hour online safety seminar.
The league’s website calls the trap shooting “the safest sport in high school” and states there have been no reported injuries since the league began in 2011. However, the league doesn’t require coaches to report injuries.
“That’s up to the coach and the parents and the kids,” John Nelson, president of the USA Clay Target Leauge,” said Thursday.
When shooters aren’t at the range, Price made clear that students are prohibited from bringing their guns to school.
“There is no way that we’re ever going to have anyone bring a firearm on campus,” he said. “Anybody does, I will walk you up to the (safety officer) and let him deal with you right there.”
What do the kids think of it?
The opinion of most Redding-area participants is that the sport is pure fun, whether it’s the challenge of blasting a fast-moving target or showing off a skill that they don’t usually get to parade in front of classmates.
After the safety orientation on March 24, some students stayed behind to show off or take their first shots.
Maddie Nightingale of Foothill was one of the students who stuck around to show others how it’s done. After giving tips to some Redding Christian students, she took on the role of “squad leader” in a row of five shooters and hit pigeon after pigeon.
“My grandpa used to be a competitive trap shooter, so he had a lot of pointers to give me,” she said. “For me, it’s fun. And not a lot of girls do it.
“I mean, when you get to outshoot a guy, it’s like, ‘How does that feel?’”
Matt Brannon covers Redding-area sports for the Record Searchlight. Follow him on Twitter @MattBrannon_RS. Support local coverage and keep up with the North State sports scene for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.