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More than 300 kids participate in Oregon State High School Tournament at Hillsboro club.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Aloha high school's Laura Apolloni takes a series of shots during the Oregon State High School Clay Target League State Tournament Saturday, June 23, at the Hillsboro Trap and Skeet Club.More than 300 kids from across the state participated in the Oregon State High School Clay Target League State Tournament, held Saturday, June 23, at the Hillsboro Trap and Skeet Club.

Hermiston won the team event, and there were numerous individual winners. But for Hillsboro Trap and Skeet Club President Steve Kaufman, the biggest winner of all might have been the sport itself.

"This is the future," said Hillsboro Trap and Skeet Club president Steve Kaufman. "The sport hasn't seen this kind of turnout in decades. I've been shooting since 1971, and we have youth leagues, but nothing that's impacted us like this."

The Oregon State High School Clay Target League was started in 2015 as part of the larger USA High School Clay Target League, and since its inception roughly three years ago, participation has increased tenfold. In its first year, according to Hermiston head coach and tournament coordinator John Adams, the tournament had nearly 30 participants. Last year, that number jumped to 140, including 14 teams. This year's event had 25 teams and 312 participants.

This is the third year that Hillsboro Trap and Skeet has hosted the event, and Kaufman has been floored by its ever-increasing popularity. In addition, kids, parents and extended families come from all over the state to watch their loved ones compete, many of whom set up tents and barbecues before, during and after the competition to celebrate the occasion.

"Last year we had 205 vehicles in the parking lot, and this year, there's well over 300," Kaufman said.

After starting with just three schools — Hermiston, Oregon City and Echo — in 2016, the clay target league has grown to more than 25 statewide, and it's moving beyond rural areas and easing into the Portland metro area. Aloha started a team this season, and Kaufman said they're working hard to get Hillsboro- and Forest Grove-area schools to join the fun.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Medford's Cole Costanti was one of the favorites heading into the Oregon State High School Clay Target  League State Tournament Saturday, June 23, at the Hillsboro Trap and Skeet Club.It's not always an easy sell, especially at a time when the words "school" and "shooting" are all too often linked in tragedy.

"Liability issues have slowed the process," said Kaufman. "But once schools and districts understand what's going on, we've seen schools do total flip-flops."

One of those districts was in Medford, where the schools initially had no interest in allowing school-sponsored teams. Kids interested in competing were forced to gain entry through sponsorship by a local private school until this season, when the district did an about-face, making trap shooting an after-school activity and allowing it to become a letter sport. Now the Medford School District even provides bus service to and from the Medford Gun Club.

"Things change once they understand that all we're really asking for is their blessing, really," Kaufman said. "Nothing happens on school grounds, and it's a no-cut sport."

Cole Costanti shoots for Medford's team, which combines kids from both North and South Medford high schools. Not only is Costanti currently ranked the state's top shooter, he's also the second-ranked shooter in the country. The teen's been shooting for five years and originally was exposed to target shooting by his father.

"My dad has been shooting since he was my age and younger, and when my brother and I got old enough to do it, he picked it up again," Costanti said.

When asked if any of the recent talk revolving around school shootings and the subsequent conversations about gun control had affected his experience with target shooting, Costanti said that although he'd expected a little of that, he'd heard nothing against the team or the sport he and others have come to thoroughly enjoy.

"I've been looking out for negativity from people outside of the team, but so far, I've only heard positive feedback," Costanti said. "Some of these kids don't really have the capability to participate in other sports, so it's been great for them, and nothing but positivity from parents and the community as a whole."

Since it started in 2001, the USA High School Clay Target League has hosted countless events with one very notable accomplishment — they're accident-free. By that metric, that makes clay target shooting the safest high school sport in the country.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Hillsboro Trap and Skeet Club President Steve Kaufman speaks about the event during the Oregon State High School Clay Target  League State Tournament Saturday, June 23, at the Hillsboro Trap and Skeet Club.All participants are required to earn a firearm safety certification as part of their eligibility to compete, and safety is stressed before and repeatedly during events by coaches, supervisors and, most importantly, those competing.

"Safety is obviously our first focal point," said Hermiston's Adams. "We teach the kids gun safety, and they have to pass a safety certification class."

The teams compete in groups of five, with each team member taking 25 shots before reloading and taking 25 more. There's morning and afternoon sessions, and the two are added up after the fact to see how many each has hit out of 100. There are varsity, junior varsity and novice classifications, divided up by competitors' averages throughout the league's regular season. There are also separate competitions for girls, which — like the sport in general — have a growing number of participants.

"We have quite a few girls," said Kaufman. "But we'd like to get more."

One of those girls is Aloha's Laura Apolloni. She's been shooting trap for five years and was initially exposed to it while vacationing in Idaho.

"This is my first year on the high school team, and it's been really fun," she said. "It's been nice to shoot with other kids, because it can be a sport for a lot of old men."

She's seen her share of female competitors, Apolloni said, but she hopes to see more as the sport becomes more popular.

"I have a couple friends who are girls who shoot, but it's mostly guys," Apolloni said. "At the competitions, I feel like I've seen a couple girls, but it feels like there should be more."

Adams speaks to the equality of trap shooting as one of its defining characteristics, as well as its simplicity. But he stressed that while the sport is physically simple, it's the mental aspect that often separates the proverbial "men from the boys."

"The fundamentals of trap shooting are very simple, but it takes a tremendous amount of concentration and focus," said Adams. "The beauty of this sport is boys, girls, people with handicaps can all compete against one another."

In the end, trap shooting is not just a sport, but rather an activity shooters like Kaufman, Adams and the more than 300 participating kids can enjoy for a lifetime.

"The beauty of trap is that it's something you can do for the rest of your life," Kaufman said. "We had a gentleman last week by the name of Chuck Curtis who is 97 years old competing. Regardless of who you are, you can compete with the greats of the sport, and you can do it 'til you die."

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