Jan/Feb 2018The Big Bangby Joey Frazier

The SCDNR's shooting sports programs connect kids with the agency and with education.

It's only been three years since the SCDNR launched its own sporting clay event at the National Wild Turkey Federation's Palmetto Shooting Complex near Edgefield, setting off a chain of stellar tournaments and championships that easily equal - and possibly even lead - other South Carolina youth shooting sports competitions. While the program continues to grow at a rapid pace and garner accolades from shooters, coaches, parents and SCDNR leaders, the youth who participate are the real winners.

"That's the way it should be," said SCDNR Law Enforcement Division Captain Billy Downer. Serving as the director of the agency's hunter education program, Take One Make One (TOMO) and shooting sports components for youth, Downer's focus is always set on the future. "This is certainly about the kids," he added. However, this program is even bigger than the sum of its many parts.

"Of course, shooting sports translate to hunting skills, too," he continued. "And that leads to more licenses sold which helps us [the SCDNR] secure more federal funding for wildlife conservation."

In the beginning...

Although the so called "big bang" for SCDNR youth shooting sports happened in Edgefield in 2015 with the first shotgun roar of the inaugural SCDNR Sporting Clay Open, the program really grew out of partnerships with other shooting sports organizations.

"We got our start with the Scholastic Clay Target Program initiative," Downer said. "And we partnered with the South Carolina Youth Shooting Foundation (SCYSF) to start this program in our state."

When the SCDNR began its own shooting program, the agency partnered with South Carolina 4-H through Clemson University to offer a nationally recognized coaches' training for new school teams and promote skeet and trap disciplines. This was a natural partnership between two state entities.

While the partnerships with both organizations grew youth clay target sports, it was the opening of the National Wild Turkey Federation's (NWTF) Palmetto Shooting Complex in 2015 that made the SCDNR program possible.

"Finally we had a venue large enough to host our own events, and partnering with the NWTF was the logical way for us to move forward," Downer said. "But we want to continue to recognize and support those organizations that helped promote youth clay target sports in the early days. They fostered the sport and brought it to a point that made our program possible. We will always give them credit for laying that groundwork, and we want to continue to support their efforts. Many - if not most - of our shooters also participate in one or both of these programs as well."

Youth do not have to become hunters to be a vital part of wildlife conservation. Wildlife restoration funding stems not only from the sale of hunting licenses, but also from the sale of shooting sports equipment - firearms and ammunition - which everyone has to purchase to participate in shooting sports. So, whether young outdoor enthusiasts hunt or not, they will be giving back to wildlife restoration for years to come.

The events feature school and club divisions so that schools compete against schools and clubs compete against clubs. The SCDNR also offers both mens' and ladies' divisions. Awards focus more on team success than on individual accomplishments.

While offering shooting opportunities for both school and club teams is important to the overall program, Downer is most interested in promoting the school teams.

"We focus on school teams because we believe that a connection with schools helps us make a successful program," Downer said. "And by connecting the program with education, it helps the participants learn life skills as well."

Downer explains that shooters must learn focus to shoot well in clay target sports. That focus translates over to education by helping shooters to learn how to focus better in the classroom, too.

"Some schools require them to maintain a certain grade point average to shoot - just like in athletics," Downer said. "We've had kids not be able to shoot at events because their grades dropped. So, there is a motivation to do better in school in order to be able to participate."

But first things first, while all these elements are important parts of the formula for the success of the program, on tournament day, it's all about safety. The SCDNR requires coaches to be certified in at least one of several approved courses, and all shooters must pass the agency's Hunter Education class to be eligible to participate.

Further, SCDNR Law Enforcement officers work the event as trappers and scorekeepers, so they are on hand at almost every station to keep an eye on the action and provide a safe environment. This is an amazing opportunity for the youth shooters to see officers in a different light, according to Downer. The officers are here to keep them safe, but also to help them along the course. They are not checking licenses or writing tickets. Shooters learn the officers are here for them, to help the event run smoothly, maintain safe participation and to cheer on the young people.

And then there are the scholarships. In 2017, seniors in our clay target events competed for more than $52,000 in college scholarship money. Some of that money went to shooters who placed, but a large part of it was awarded by drawing, so all senior shooters had an equal chance to take home up to $1,000 to help with college. The funds and support that come from the SCDNR and its partners have a positive impact on their lives and in the future of wildlife conservation, too. At the awards ceremony, Downer encourages a representative from each business funding a scholarship to be present to personally hand off the check to the lucky student.

Home on the Range

The SCDNR's Wateree Range, located in the Midlands near Eastover, offers a variety of shotgun sports opportunities that are perfect for teams in need of an affordable practice facility. Currently, there is an eight-station sporting clays course with some very challenging target presentations, a covered five-stand, and both skeet and trap fields. The Wateree Range opened in 2017, and future expansion will include both rifle and pistol ranges to accommodate all shooters, not only the youth shooting teams. The cost is five dollars for twenty-five clay targets.

"So there is a reward out there for participants," Downer said. "Not only for the kids who shoot well, who get first, second and third, but also for the shooter who sticks with it. Any high school senior who participates in our event has an equal chance to be drawn for scholarship money.

"In addition, each of our HOAs [highest overall] receives an iPad that can be used at school. These iPads are provided by funds donated each year by members of our Law Enforcement Advisory Committee."

The annual Sporting Clay Open attracted nearly six hundred shooters in 2017, and participants come with their own entourages.

"It's a family event," said Downer. "We see coaches, parents, siblings and even grandparents riding around in golf carts at the Open to support their kids, the teams and the sport. They bring picnics, they cook out - it's just incredible. We had more than 2,000 people attend the tournament last March."

Besides the sporting clays events, the program also offers both skeet and trap tournaments. While these disciplines are not yet as popular as the sporting clay championship, they also have grown by nearly 100 percent in a few short years. Many shooters compete in all the disciplines, Downer noted.

As the tournaments continue to expand in numbers of participants, Downer already is considering multi-day events to accommodate all the shooters.

"This is a really big deal," he said. "Clay target sports, the scholarships, the family atmosphere, but most importantly the connection we make with the boys and girls. It's a big, big deal."

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