GALWAY — “Pull.”
The command for a target to be thrown came from behind a variety of colored and patterned face masks, in a variety of pitch and volume, from kids in all sizes and shapes.
A tall girl in a pink winter coat and gray knit hat and mittens. A boy in a green adaptive wheelchair with tank tracks to get through the snow. Another boy in green camo — and mask to match.
The report of the shotgun and the earthy whiff of gunpowder in the frigid air, however, was the same every time, for each one.
The results suggested that the clay pigeon population at the Galway Fish and Gun Club is not in immediate jeopardy of extinction, but that wasn’t the point, as the Galway Central School District-sponsored trap shooting team practiced for the first time on Thursday.
While trap shooting has been available to students at some of the small schools in Section II, Galway is the first in Saratoga County to form a team (contested as a club sport in New York state), evidence of growth for shooting sports at the scholastic level. The town is particularly well-equipped as a proving ground — literally — for school trap shooting, not only because the Fish and Gun Club is a few miles from the high school, but two Galway High alums, Heather and Colleen Tillson, are former NCAA Division I riflery athletes, now coaching the Eagles.
What the Tillson sisters and the rest of the Galway coaches are promoting are the rewards of their sport, including a heightened sense of safety and self-discipline, but also the inclusivity that makes it an outlet for kids of all stripes to test their skill and dedication.
If you can do that as part of your school team against other competitors from around the state, as Galway will do when the New York State High School Clay Target League (NYSHSCTL) season begins in April, all the better. After a survey of interest got 100 responses a year ago, 40 kids followed through to join the team this winter.
“I was expecting 20 kids or so; honestly, it floored me,” Heather Tillson said. “It really motivated us to kick this into high gear to expect more kids than we ever thought we’d have. I thought it was fantastic, and it speaks to the sport, that people are interested in it and they want to get involved, and it just wasn’t offered. So it was a missed opportunity, I think, until now.”
“I think it’s really cool that our school — especially Galway, which is a small school — has put together trap shooting,” said seventh grader Chase Maher. “I really like that they thought of it and we got to do it.
“I thought a lot of hunters would be here, but a lot of people that I know don’t hunt and have never shot a gun are doing it, so that surprised me.”
Although he’s just 12, Chase has experience with guns, having hunted deer and small game with his dad and older brother Christopher, as well having participated in skeet shooting.
The kids who came out for the Galway trap shooting team cover the full spectrum of experience, including some who had never fired a gun, but have been instructed in proper handling and shooting leading into Thursday’s practice, then were coached one-on-one in waves of five kids a shift for COVID-19-related distancing.
Hitting the “bird,” on the other hand, was a trickier proposition, made more challenging by a cold wind that rushed through the evergreens surrounding the snowy trap shooting range.
In skeet shooting, targets are thrown across from two stations at perpendicular angles to the shot, but in trap shooting, the target flies away from the shooter in an arc. It looks difficult to hit those 4.25-inch diameter disks, which leave at 44 miles an hour … because it is difficult.
“You don’t want to shoot it too close to the house, because it’s moving really fast when it first comes out of the machine, and you don’t want to try to wait for it while it’s too far out because you’re not going to have a lot of shot pattern left to hit the bird with,” Heather Tillson said. “You want to hit in the first three seconds.”
“The gun was a lot heavier than I thought it was going to be, and it was a little big for me,” said eighth grader Mariska Leszczynski, who was firing a gun for the first time.
“It was amazing.”
That was in reference to her second practice attempt, which busted off a piece of the clay pigeon, a scoring shot.
There are 27 colleges with mostly co-ed NCAA riflery programs, including the University of Tennessee at Martin and Mississippi, where Heather and Colleen Tillson competed, respectively.
Many of the state’s target league schools are in western New York, but there are about a dozen with trap shooting clubs in Section II, many of which compete in the Adirondack League in the more mainstream interscholastic sports governed by the New York Public High School Athletic Association. Riflery, which uses air rifles and stationary paper targets, is an association varsity sport.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake is poised to become the second school in Saratoga County to start a NYSHSCTL club, and will hold a virtual informational meeting on Thursday.
Galway freshman Shamus Evans, 15, appreciates the appeal of the sport as much as anyone.
He suffers from a form of cerebral palsy that affects mobility in his arms and legs, but “suffers” is a tired, insufficient word in his case, since Shamus hasn’t allowed CP to keep him from doing the stuff he’s interested in. Shooting from his modified wheelchair, Shamus didn’t hit any birds, but Heather Tillson applauded his concentration and the measured swing of his aim.
“It was really fun,” Shamus said. “I never fired a gun before, so I thought it would be fun to try something new.”
“Shamus actually came out for a couple tutorial sessions the past couple Sundays, just to make sure it would work for him, because he does have some limitations in his arms,” said Shaun Evans, Shamus’s dad. “Hey, Shamus has introduced us to all kinds of different things. He’s sailing and horseback riding and skiing and stuff that we never did as a family. But Shamus is the one who brings it to us all. So that’s kind of neat, how it comes around like that.
“We’re lucky to have the coaches we have. I mean, these are D-I scholarship athletes teaching our kids, so we know they’re in good hands.”
With many high school sports on hold because of the pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume that the pool of Galway trap shooting athletes includes kids from other sports looking for something to do.
That isn’t necessarily the case, athletic director and assistant principal Elise Britt said, which means that Galway has found a way to introduce a whole new segment of its student body to an extracurricular activity.
“They want to make this work as a lifetime sport for these kids, so they’re willing to work around our sports schedules, if that’s what it comes to,” Britt said after an intro orientation meeting a week before Thursday’s first practice. “But a lot of the kids that were here tonight, there wasn’t a ton of overlap. Which I think is awesome, that we’re hitting a different target and getting more kids involved.”
“That’s what they found in these trap leagues is that you’re capturing the kids that aren’t in any other school activities or sports, and that’s a population you want to target to get involved, get outdoors and be self-motivated,” Colleen Tillson said. “The sport teaches you a large amount of self-discipline, because when you’re out there, you’re competing against yourself.
“So you’re constantly making corrections for yourself and wanting to do better. It teaches these kids, No. 1, safety. Two, it teaches them self-discipline and how to use self-discipline in a team sport.”
So the school district club organizers have their targets, and the Galway kids have theirs.
These are moving targets.
But with a good eye and a steady hand, you can find them.