High School Sports

No balls, no helmets, no bats. Youngsters take their shot at sports stardom with guns

The lounge chair nearly swallows Cross Barker, but he’s relaxed this first Saturday of his summer. He’s one of the smallest kids here. His Nike running shoes hover above the ground. An oversize ballcap nests on his red hair. But it’s the smile that crosses his freckled face that catches the eye.

Nearby is a stout young man named Cooper Gleaton, his face covered by orange-tinted glasses and hints of a beard. The brim of his camouflage hat bears a fishing hook. Faded jeans blend into a pair of worn boots. High school is now behind him, and he fully looks the part of an adult.

And then there’s Weston Grainger, hobbling around with a clunky black walking boot on one foot and a Sperry Top-Sider on the other. He broke his foot in eight-grade gym class less than 48 hours ago, but here he is, ready to compete.

At first blush, they have little in common outside of names that could have been plucked from a romance novel. Still, here they are, all competing for the same high school state championship. But there are no basketballs, helmets or baseball gloves to be found.

Everyone here has a shotgun.

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A competitor fires shotgun at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

Like any sporting event, there’s a national anthem.

It’s just past 9 on a Saturday morning and all are risen — hands, baseball caps, visors and bucket hats over their hearts — as Weston’s mom, Gina, hits every note. The 2019 South Carolina State High School Clay Target League tournament is under way and soon, the Mid-Carolina Gun Club will sound like the inside of a popcorn machine.

There is a decidedly South Carolina feel in the air. The competitors and their families could be an advertisement for gun education and safety. An overwhelming majority show a comfort with guns borne not only from training, but also from years in the woods hunting.

“I got my first deer I ever killed, I shot that when I was 8,” says Cooper, who is representing Orangeburg Preparatory. “He’s in there. In my living room, I got another 8-point (buck) that I killed.”

Cooper says he played football and baseball up until fifth or sixth grade, but the outdoor sport he loved most was hunting. He was born into this.

“We’ve hunted all our life,” Justin Gleaton, his father and the team coach, says. “Myself, Dena, we’ve hunted from the time we were old enough to hold a firearm. And Cooper, he was raised in it right along with us.”

Adds Dena, Cooper’s mother and an assistant coach on the team: “When you see one of the Gleatons, you normally see all of the Gleatons because we’re always doing it.”

Today though, the middle schoolers and high schoolers — ages 12 to 18, male and female — are shooting trap and skeet. Trap has clay discs flying out from a shooting station. Skeet requires shooters to hit targets that are flying across their face. Each round consists of 25 targets.

The South Carolina league is a member of the USA High School Clay Target League, an organization that has grown from one to 25 participating states since 2001. The league is most popular in Minnesota, where more than 12,000 students compete across 330 teams.

South Carolina joined in 2018. Twelve teams participated this spring, up from two last year. Today’s participants are predominantly white, and the majority of the schools come from Horry County. The bigger cities are represented across the state’s four other clay leagues. The South Carolina Youth Shooting Foundation, for example, is home to Ben Lippen, Cardinal Newman, Hammond and Heathwood Hall (Columbia), First Baptist Christian and Porter-Gaud (Charleston) and Christ Church Episcopal School (Greenville).

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Cross Barker of Christian Academy poses for a photo at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

Unlike most other competitions, especially state championship competitions, there is little noise outside the pop-pop-pop of the shotguns. There’s no cheering, no big displays of emotion and no crowds outside of the participants and parents. It lasts 4-5 hours. It’s a little like golf with guns.

Cross Barker is waiting for his first turn at the trap station. His camouflage shotgun rests on a nearby storage building. He is competing in the novice division, but he was 5 when he first went hunting with his dad.

“We did dove hunting,” says Eddie Barker. “He would have a BB gun. He wouldn’t be able to shoot yet. But he just got a kick out of taking it.”

Cross was a big reason his school, Christian Academy, formed a team.

“He was in fourth grade,” CA coach Shaw Williams says. “He’d been trying to tell the head of school, telling administrators and teachers, ‘I want a shooting team! I want a shooting team!’ So when this thing first started, he was first to sign up.”

Cross agrees.

“It’s always been my thing,” Barker says. “My dad always wanted me to play golf, but I’ve never been a big fan of it.”

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Shotgun shells surround students from Conway High School at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

The sport’s state director, Brett Allen, knows what you are thinking.

High school kids — middle schoolers, even — in large groups with guns in school-sponsored activities? Really?

“We’ve had 72,000 participants in this league since 2001,” Allen says. “We’ve fired over 50 million rounds. We’ve yet to record an injury yet.

“We want to keep it that way.”

None of today’s participants are here without having first passed a league-approved hunter safety education course.

“Just by looking around,” Allen says, “you see how responsible these kids are. That’s what I like about it. Safety is our first priority. Then, we’re gonna have fun. Then we’re gonna learn to be marksmen, that’s third.”

Says Cora Robb, a sophomore at Orangeburg Prep: “Always keep your gun facing up. That’s the one thing that always sticks with me. No matter what, my gun is facing up. No matter if I’m carrying it at home or just through the house to clean it. It’s up and the chamber open.”

First-year Christian Academy coach Shaw Williams is an avid hunter and has been around guns all his life. But that didn’t ease what he saw during an early practice.

“I have 14 kids handling shotguns,” Williams says. “It was a little bit nerve wracking. This is no joke. We took it very seriously. Safety was A-No. 1. And we harped on it from day one and every time we shot.”

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Orangeburg Prep shooter Cooper Gleaton competes at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

When Cooper Gleaton shoots, others follow. An orange disc flies out of the skeet station and Cooper locates it, aims and turns it into confetti. His teammates behind him mimic his form.

Cooper is as close to a superstar as there will be today. In sports, even the untrained eye can still see when someone is clearly better than his or her peers. Maybe it’s the sound the golf ball makes when struck, maybe it’s the tightness of a well-thrown spiral. With Cooper, it’s the way he makes the targets explode.

“I like seeing how good I can get,” he says. “I just always try to get better and better.”

While others may clip their targets, Cooper leaves no doubt. Center hit after center hit.

“He’s very motivated to do this,” his teammate Robb says. “And you can see how much he practices and how bad he wants to be here. I look up to him.”

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Students from Conway High School prepare to shoot at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

The USA Clay Target League says it won’t accept a team without a signed statement from administration, on school letterhead, green-lighting the sport. At Christian Academy, that meant it was ultimately Katherine Cannon’s decision to make.

The head of school said she understood a shooting team would raise eyebrows. But she was swayed, in part, because she saw opportunity for her students.

“The question really is about whether it’s good or not for children,” Cannon says. “Shooting guns may not seem, in some circles or states or around certain people, to be a good idea, but I have come to see for certain students it is the only thing that really is a positive outlet for them.

“And because of the teaching that’s done and the careful ways our coaches and school have approached the team — the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) has been a great partner in that — I don’t have concerns for the safety of the children. I more see it as an outlet for them to just work with precision, to take direction from a coach.”

Cannon said she has yet to hear a complaint. And the Cross Barkers of her hallways had a hobby that they now call a sport.

“Some of our athletes here,” Cannon says, “they don’t look like a football player, a quarterback, a running back or a wide receiver. It’s not what they’re going to do and it’s not what they want to do. This is one of approximately 25 activities that we offer in the way of athletics at Christian Academy that would be encouraging for young people and their passions.”

There is one big rule, however: Don’t bring your gun to school.

Cannon recalls it happening once.

“There was a child who had to bring his things with him,” she says. “So a parent dropped him off in the morning and the gun was transferred to our security officer’s locked office in the day. We have a full-time security guard here, so he was given basically dominion over that weapon while it was here on campus … No one has a key to that office other than him.

“That’s an example of where that could be an issue and it’s not because we just worked on it ahead of time and put a plan in place that worked for that family, the student and the school.”

The State attempted to get comments from the public school perspective, where approval might be more complicated and opposition louder, but calls to Conway High School and the Horry County schools superintendent went unreturned. The principal at Green Sea Floyds initially agreed to an interview but then backed out.

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A scorer sits on his perch as competitors toss away empty shell boxes at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

Weston Grainger is an outlier today. While other shooters grew up with their guns, Weston never touched one until this past December. He found it under his Christmas tree.

“Coach (Zach) Boyer is their coach and he’s also Weston’s social studies teacher,” says Gina Grainger. “And he said something about wanting a clay target team. Because that’s Weston’s favorite teacher, he says, ‘Mama, I think I want to do that.’ And I said, ‘Son, you’ve never touched a gun in your life.’ And he said, ‘But I think I really want to do it.’

“So for Christmas we bought him a shotgun.”

It was a new experience for the parents as well. Gina Grainger says she was always fearful of guns. “And my husband is college football, that’s all he cares about.”

But the Myrtle Beach-area Green Sea Floyds shooting team represented opportunity for her son. Weston has a blood disorder that keeps him from passing a physical and, thus, makes him ineligible for a traditional school sport.

“I got over my fear,” Gina says. “We went into a gun shop and the gun owner says, ‘Kids trained to use a gun properly will never misuse a gun.’ So I thought, ‘You know, he’s got a point. For safety reasons, it couldn’t hurt anything. Let’s let him try it.’”

The reserved kid has opened up.

“It has brought him out of his shell,” Gina says.

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Students from Maranatha Christian School prepare to take the range at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

Those involved in the sport tout positives such as full-roster participation (“No one sits on the bench,” says Justin Gleaton. “Everyone shoots.”), its flexibility for all comers (“Anybody can do it,” says Williams. “Even if you’re in a wheelchair, you can still shoot a gun.”), its scholarship opportunities (“I’m looking at Clemson,” says Robb, “because of their shooting team.”) and its long-lasting lessons.

“When you can teach a youth from the start how to handle a firearm,” says Justin Gleaton, “the gun is respected. In my honest opinion, I think you would see way fewer incidents with guns in schools and school shootings if kids knew how to handle a firearm at an earlier age. I truly believe that.”

According to Allen, it costs an individual just $225-250 to shoot an entire Clay Target League season. This includes targets and ammo.

“That doesn’t include your shotgun,” Allen says. “That’s assuming you have a shotgun.”

The league is different in that teams don’t play travel or play against each other. They go to their local gun range one day a week, shoot and have their scores put into a computer by coaches. Compiled over a five-week period, standings — posted online — create storylines entering the state tournament.

In all, 54 students representing eight teams participate in the tournament. Some with clever nicknames (Conway Hot Shots and Jefferson Davis Shotgun Riders), and some without. It just adds to the nature of the event.

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Zack Felkel of Orangeburg Prep, left, exchanges fist bumps with teammates Cooper Gleaton, Matthew Zeigler, Jace Hiers, and Zack Felkel at the Mid-Carolina Gun Club during the South Carolina State High School Clay Target League championships Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Orangeburg, S.C. Sean Rayford online@thestate.com

The day ends with an awards ceremony. And there are lots of awards to hand out. Recognition is announced for those who place first, second or third in more than 20 categories, covering both the state tournament and regular season.

Allen shakes hands and places medals around the necks of the winners. It is all very low-key.

“It’s a good environment for everybody,” says Nancy Greenlee, Robb’s mother. “It’s competitive, but it’s not mean.”

Cross doesn’t take home any awards, but he leaves satisfied. anyway. “We come out here, shoot guns and have a good time.”

It is a good day for Weston. He finishes second among the novice competitors hitting 81 of 100 targets — despite the freshly broken foot.

“The first thing I had to ask the doctor was to make sure he could still shoot today,” Gina Grainger says. “And he shot better today than he ever has.” She jokes that Weston will wear the boot all next year, even after his foot heals.

It is an even better day for Cooper. He finishes with a tournament best 93-of-100 at the highest level and, based on his in-season performance, had already clinched individual titles for both trap and skeet heading into the event. Orangeburg Prep, his team, wins team honors as well.

Shooting has never been more than a hobby for Cooper. Over the next few months, his drive for a state championship will be replaced by a desire for an electrician’s license through Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. The finality of closing ceremonies hits harder for Cooper’s mother, who calls her son’s performance bittersweet.

“Happy that he’s done so well,” Dena says, “but so sad that it’s his last one.”

Andrew Ramspacher has been covering college athletics since 2010, serving as The State’s USC men’s basketball beat writer since October 2017. His work has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors, Virginia Press Association and West Virginia Press Association. At a program-listed 5-foot-10, he’s always been destined to write about the game. Not play it.
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