Shots rang out when the Merrill Bluejay Trap season kicked off Mar. 30
TINA L. SCOTT
The Merrill Bluejay Trap Team started practicing in mid-March and had their first meet on Tuesday, Mar. 30, against Rhinelander, to kick off their nine-week trap season. High scoring Varsity shooters at the first meet were Jordan Smukowski (23), Cameron Stadler (22), and Brindelyn Eternicka (22).
On Tuesday, Apr. 6, the Bluejays held their second meet against Mosinee. They started shooting, and some athletes completed their shots, but the meet had to be stopped prematurely due to lightning. It was Thursday and Saturday before all of the shooters could complete their shots. High scoring Varsity shooters at last week’s meet included Jordan Smukowski (24), Camryn Schulz (24), and tied for the number three spot were two shooters: Cali Brown (23) and Cameron Stadler (23).
Due to a delay in the start of the season for some teams, it is not yet known which school emerged the winner of these initial meets. “From what I was told, we will not know wins and losses until the end of April,” said Assistant Coach Dave Lepak. “Stevens Point cannot get on their shooting range until then, so the rest of the League has agreed to wait for SPASH.”
The team competes in the Great Northern Conference (GNC). The team was unable to compete in 2020 due to COVID, but will compete this year with virtual scoring, meaning events will take place at each school’s home range and scores are entered virtually.
“We’re over 50 kids this season, and it looks like it’s gonna be a great season,” said Kevin Holz, Head Coach. “We’ve got a bunch of Varsity and Junior Varsity shooters that came back, and we’ve got a bunch of young shooters.”
With 54 registered athletes on the Bluejay Team this year, the sport continues to grow in popularity. though that is 5 fewer students than in 2019. This is a great number of participants, especially in light of COVID. Registration is open to students in grades 6-12 and is broken down into four levels: Varsity, Junior Varsity, Advanced, or Entry. Of those 54 athletes this year, 29 are from Merrill High School, with 15 Varsity shooters, including four Seniors: Cameron Stadler, Camryn Schulz, Jack Zamzow, and Alex Langren.
Each classification (Varsity, Junior Varsity, Advanced, and Entry) shoots for themselves. In other words, regardless of who is on the line when the group is shooting, each shooter is scored against other shooters in their classification. “Something no other sport can say is, we can have a 12th grader shooting with a 6th grader at the same time,” Lepak said. “That really helps the younger shooters.”
“In 2019, I think we won 3 of the 4 classifications for the conference,” Lepak said. “Aside from the assigned classification, there is still the High Overall (HOA) at the end of the year, which any athlete from any classification can win.”
“The normal scoring system takes the five highest scores for each classification for each week,” Lepak explains. “That could be five different athletes every week” whose scores are submitted to represent the Bluejay Team.
As part of the GNC, Merrill shoots against nine other area schools: Mosinee, Antigo, Rhinelander, Tomahawk, Wausau, Stevens Point (SPASH), Lakeland, Northland Pines, and Medford. The Merrill Team shoots at the Lincoln Gun Club on Corning Rd. every Tuesday from 4:00-7:00 p.m. Athletes can sign up on any “squad” to shoot at a convenient time within the time span available. Each athlete shoots two rounds – a practice round and a Team round entered into the Shot system for the virtual match which will count as their score for the meet. The athlete must declare whether they are shooting a practice or Team round when they sign up and before they shoot. There’s no changing the call once shots are fired!
Athletes shoot at 25 round clay 4 1/4 inch discs (also called clay pigeons or birds). There are 5 shooters on a squad; and there are 3 trap houses at Lincoln Gun Club, so there could be 15 shooters “on the line” at a time. Trap shooting requires accuracy, skill, and split-second timing to repeatedly aim, fire, and break the moving targets after a “pull” which hurls the clay disc into the air at approx. 42 mph, in a trajectory that simulates the flight path of a bird fleeing a hunter. To score a hit, the shooter must hit the target, but it doesn’t matter whether it breaks off just a small chunk of the clay target or if it shatters the entire thing. While shooting all 25 targets is not an easy feat, the team has some very skilled shooters who can and do get a perfect 25.
“Trap shooting is one of the fastest growing sports in the Midwest,” said Amy Brown, a parent of one of the athletes and current Vice President of the MHS Trap Team Foundation.
Trap shooting started in Merrill at the Lincoln Gun Club in 2014 with 17 athletes and then became a lettering sport for MHS in 2015 under the direction of then head coach Dave Lepak. However, at that time, there wasn’t an official conference to compete in. “In 2017, the team opened to 7th and 8th grade,” Lepak said. “And then in 2018 to 6th grade as well. Our numbers have since climbed ever since.”
In 2018, the Trap Teams within north central Wisconsin formed to create the GNC. The GNC Trap Shooting League for trap shooting was modeled after the WIAA GNC. Merrill Bluejays had 31 athletes on the team in 2018 and then nearly doubled to 59 athletes in 2019. The Bluejays finished in first place in the GNC conference in 2018 and 2019. There were no trap shooting competitions in 2020 due to COVID. The Merrill Bluejay Varsity Trap Team will be looking to defend their 2019 GNC Championship.
Trap Team is a high school sport recognized by Merrill High School (MHS); however, the program is totally self-funded. This year, finding ammunition for the sport is a challenge and more expensive than in years past. The Team would welcome community sponsorship to help support the Trap Team. (Donations can be directed to the Lincoln Gun Club Youth Shooting and Education Foundation, PO Box 54, Merrill WI 54452.)
Donations are used for programs and items like team jerseys, targets, travel expenses, voice activated callers, ammunition, guns, safety gear for ear and eye protection, coaching classes, and trap house/thrower/range maintenance.
“We are always looking for community support,” Lepak said. “The majority of athletes pay out of pocket for everything, guns and ammo. We do offer a fundraiser to help offset their costs. We also sell tickets for the Wisconsin Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP) that helps raise funds. We do not receive any funds from MAPS other than bussing. We are able to call the Lincoln Gun Club our home again with no ties to MAPS. Lincoln Gun Club has several guns that the athlete can use, but for the most part every athlete has their own gun. 12 gauge is the most popular gun to use, but there are several that shoot a 20 gauge.”
“Ammo has been in very short supply this year so far. The team has made several large buys through the SCTP, but nothing has been received as of yet,” Lepak added at the time of his comments on Apr. 8.
“Even with the shortage of shells, we’ve been able to make it through,” Holz said. Though the team would definitely welcome donations of shells.
Coaches switched roles this year, with Kevin Holz stepping up to take the position of Head Coach and Dave Lepak agreeing to continue on as Assistant Coach. There are also 4 new helpers this year, bringing the total helpers to 12 for 2021. Of these 12 helpers, “we have nine certified coaches this year,” Holz said. “Four of which are women coaches to help out our lady athletes,” Holz said certified coaches are the only helpers permitted to be on the line with the shooters. Certification comes with completion of an SCTP course, Holz added. “They are our governing organization.”
“All of our coaches are 100% volunteers,” Lepak added.
Trap shooting is particularly popular as a sport because individuals of a wide range of ages and abilities can compete alongside one another. It’s the perfect multi-generational sport. Eight-year-old kids, properly trained, can shoot alongside and compete with their 80-year-old great grandfathers or great grandmothers. It is never to late to learn, and even handicapped or wheelchair bound individuals can compete.
Lepak said that locally the sport has attracted a wide variety of athletes and shooting trap is truly a lifelong sport that most people can enjoy. The team currently includes guys and girls, from 6th to 12th grade, and an athlete with Down Syndrome who competes right alongside all of the other athletes. In the past, they’ve even had a team member who was considered legally blind. “Although he was labeled legally blind,” Lepak said, “he was able to see, but not able to focus on objects. When we asked him what he could see when shooting trap, his reply was that he could see an orange trail where the bird was flying, but not the actual bird itself. He has since graduated, probably four or five years ago.”
Regardless of age and/or beginning shooting ability, the Merrill Bluejay Trap Team focuses on teaching athletes safe and responsible handling and storing of all firearms. Athletes are taught to respect firearms and other people. And hopefully, they emerge with not only knowledge of firearm safety, but a lifelong interest in recreational shooting sports and activities.