Downriver’s only high school clay shooting team introduces students to guns safely

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Keith Salowich For The News-Herald

Grosse Ile High School pulled the trigger on launching Downriver’s first school-accredited shooting sports team.

Head coach and Grosse Ile resident Brian Long spawned the idea to start the team during a conversation with his daughter, who was a freshman at the time. She was worried about finding extra-curricular activities to keep her busy when the two came up with the idea for a clay shooting team.

“Trap is a sport that uses typical hunting shotguns and here on the island, we have a lot of duck hunters, a lot of deer hunters, so it kind of fit with the community,” Long said.

Long said he recognizes the negative feelings associated with guns in relation to schools, but sees the team as a way to introduce students to using guns recreationally with a strict focus on safety.

“The way I see firearms (is) they’re tools,” Long said. “It’s all about the intent behind the use of the tool. This sport highlights that firearms can be used in a recreational and positive way. It forces these kids to be very self-controlled and very responsible and they take it to heart.”

Long brought the idea to the school’s athletic director who passed it along to the principal and eventually the school board. The idea was approved and Long had to build a team within just a few weeks to be eligible for the 2017 season, though he knew what qualities to look for in potential pupils.

“You have to be patient,” he said. “You have to have a very short memory. You have to look at it as 50 one-shot competitions because you only have control over the next (target) that comes out of the house. If you missed the last one, that one’s done.”

High school clay shooting teams across Michigan are growing very quickly, according to Long.

When the Michigan State High School Clay Shooting League began, there were 97 students participating on eight teams in the state. Last year, when GIHS joined the league, the league had expanded to 396 participants on 21 teams. In the 2018 spring season, the league was bolstered to 975 students on 42 teams in Michigan.

“Shooting clay targets is just fun,” he said. “The immediate feedback of watching that target break is a little addictive. With the way the sport is structured, it’s not a giant time commitment. As far as extra-curricular activities go, it’s fairly inexpensive.”

Most students use semi-automatic 12-gauge shotguns, but there is some variability in the type of shotgun that can be used competitively.

However, all participants are required to use target ammunition, which has smaller shot and fires at a lower velocity than conventional hunting rounds, and all guns and ammo must be supplied by the student.

Raven Reaune will be starting 11th grade at Grosse Ile High School in the fall and was among the first students to join the team at its inception even though she’d never fired anything larger than a handgun before.

“My family has always been into hunting, so I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll try it,’” Reaune said. “I was nervous. I’d shot pistols before, but I’d never shot a shotgun before and it was so big. I really had no idea what to expect.”

The team practices each Wednesday beginning in mid-March and competes every Sunday through the end of the season in mid-June at the Wayne County Sportsman’s Club in Romulus. Competitions consist of each student shooting two rounds of 25 attempts.

Conferences are divided not by the size of the school as in other sports, but by size of team’s roster. GIHS is in conference four, among schools from Midland, Grand Rapids, Manchester and more.

“Last year out of the 11 kids I had, only three had really shot at all before they joined the team,” Long said. “So we struggled. There were a lot of growing pains. Everybody was safe, which was the best thing, but we didn’t do well.”

The first year, Grosse Ile finished seventh out of an eight-team conference.

This year, they finished No. 2 out of seven teams.

Long attributed the improvement to new blood bolstering the team’s roster to 18 shooters and an added year of experience.

There are six volunteer coaches on the team, though Long is the only one with any former coaching or competitive shooting experience. However, the other coaches have practiced and researched extensively to learn the intricacies of the sport and each coach had to go undergo a background check and training through the school, he said.

“We have a very large coach-to-student ratio for a reason,” Long said. “The kids are very mindful and very safety conscious, but they’re still kids. We want to make sure we have a lot of eyes on them at all times. We’re all out here because we love it.”

Long has lived on Grosse Ile with his family for 11 years.

“I started shooting competitively over 40 years ago,” he said. “I started with my dad shooting trap and skeet. Then I shot Olympic small bore rifle for the University of Detroit. Then after college, I moved on to shooting long range rifle and handgun sports.”

As a child, Long’s father would regularly drive him from Wayne to Pointe Mouillee to practice shooting.

“Friends that I shoot with and I are gun guys and gun guys are kind of born,” he said. “I was drawn to guns as a kid and my dad, while he’s not really into guns, he supported that passion.

“I’m not real tall. I’m not fast. I certainly don’t jump. But shooting is a sport of concentration and I can do that.”