CENTRAL POINT — Declan Payne has proven to be just as quick a study on the shooting range as he is in the classroom at Cascade Christian High School.
The first time he stepped onto the concrete pad and called for his first 25 clay pigeons to fly, all but six broke on their own. At his second station, 20 shattered from Payne's BBs.
"I was chasing the target, not following it," Payne says. "Big difference."
Now Payne is breaking clays and taking names, and all while being true to his school.
Payne is a member of the initial Cascade Christian contingent — and one of 14 high schools — competing this spring in the inaugural Oregon State High School Clay Target League that has brought the shooting sports into the realm of varsity competition.
The Cascade Christian team includes six students from that school and eight from South Medford High School who collectively make up the only such team in the Rogue Valley in a league primarily filled by schools from the Willamette Valley and Northeast Oregon.
The local team shoots Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Medford Gun Club off Vila Road, with each member shooting at two sets of 25 clay pigeons each day. The best two scores are taken and averaged for the week.
Competitions are a mix of live fire and cyber.
Each team shoots on their own each week, and they post their individual and team scores online. Individual and team scores are ranked, with the first set of scores from last week's first round expected to be posted today.
"They all know how they did," says Mel Weeks, the Cascade Christian team's organizer and coach. "As a group, we'll see how we fared against other schools.
"They never shoot person to person," Weeks says. "It's all through the computer."
The cyber-shoots continue the next four weeks. The kids get to compete head-to-head during the state's inaugural state tournament slated for June 24 in Hillsboro.
Those averaging fewer than 15 broken targets per round of 25 are classified as novices. Those breaking fewer than 19 are junior varsity, with varsity shooters breaking anywhere from 19 to a perfect 25 targets per round.
South Medford Junior Bailey Goble, 16, who has been shooting since age 10, says shooting 48 out of 50 clay targets during an evening shoot is better than scoring a goal or getting a base hit in other sports she has played.
"I love it," she says. "It gives kids another outlet besides baseball and soccer."
While Goble has been shooting for more than one-third of her life, at least four of the team's members are brand new to shooting.
Duane Sanders, who helps coach the group, likes the improvements he's seen so far.
"The ones who are just starting are making vast improvements," Sanders says. "It's nice to see."
Clay-target shooters say it's one of the few sports where boys and girls can compete side-by-side.
The effort to field a team began a few years ago when Ryan Costanti tried and failed to get the Medford School District to sign off on a team. Weeks, however, found Cascade Christian's board and athletic director more receptive, and they signed off on the team in mid-January, Weeks says.
Participants must pass a shooting-safety course before joining the team.
The South Medford kids joined the Cascade Christian ranks under a cooperative agreement between the schools' two athletic directors as outlined in the national program, which allows kids from outlying schools to join another school's team provided their own school does not have one.
"I was going to get into hunting, so we thought this would be a great way to get my timing down to hunt waterfowl," Payne says.
Goble says the sport is gaining acceptance among her peers once she explains what it is and isn't.
"Most people don't frown on it," Goble says. "They just don't know what it entails."
The national clay target league touts itself as perhaps the safest high-school sport in the land, with more than 30,000 participants firing 230 million shots since 2001 without a single reported injury.
Case in point: Weeks' son Spencer, 16, is a member of the team, but the Cascade Christian sophomore isn't shooting because of a separated shoulder suffered playing on the school's baseball team.
"You don't have to worry about your kid coming home with a dislocated shoulder or a concussion," Mel Weeks says.
Costanti, whose two sons go to school at South Medford and compete on the Cascade Christian team, says he hopes this year's team can help spawn other teams in local school districts, including Medford.
"We'll try again next year and see what we can do," Costanti says. "Maybe after this year, things will be easier."