While teams and athletes have been sidelined all spring, one high school sport found a way to return to competition Sunday for the first time since Minnesota State High School League announced it was canceling all spring activities.
The clay target shooting teams from Bethlehem Academy, Faribault, Northfield and Waterville-Elysian-Morristown have banded together to create what they're calling the Youth Championship League, hosted at Morristown Gun Club.
During a normal regular season, all four teams call Morristown Gun Club home. So, when the club was allowed to open back up as social distancing restrictions loosened, Northfield coach Pete Mergens hatched an idea.
While the usual backing of the MSHSL was unavailable, a somewhat normal season was still possible.
"I contacted the (other) coaches and most of the coaches are on the board of the gun club as well," Mergens said. "We just had a conversation about what we were going to do to get these kids out. We came up with a Morristown Gun Club league, and we actually call it the Youth Championship League. Basically what it is, is rather than competing as teams we're competing as individual athletes, but we're encouraging kids to wear their school colors and go out and compete with their fellow schools."
Starting last Sunday, athletes will take part in a 10-round regular season. Unlike a normal year, though, when shooting times are strictly regimented to specific days and timeframes, athletes are able to record their rounds on any Thursday after 5 p.m. until sunset or Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"It's a great opportunity for these kids to come out and maybe shoot on the same squad as some of the other schools," Mergens said. "Usually, they don't get to do that. We're competing as a team normally and not ever competing against the other school at a given time."
Interested athletes can register online at the Morristown Gun Club website, where a form is available to fill out, or come to the gun club during one of the two weekly competition time slots and sign up.
On Friday, Mergens said there were already 50-60 kids signed up for the league, and he expects that number to at least double.
"You can join halfway through the season," he said. "It doesn't matter, you just have to make sure you get there and shoot your 10 rounds."
Shooters will also be divided into three divisions — novice, junior varsity and varsity — based on their most recent shooting average.
After the 10-week regular season, the 10 shooters with the highest average round in each division will compete in a championship event that's tentatively scheduled for July 25 at Morristown Gun Club.
"Anybody who participates in the league is welcome to come that day and cheer on their friend or fellow teammate," Mergens said. "We're trying to tie the school side of it in for at least some pride and maybe some bragging rights, but really we're just trying to get these kids out and meeting the other kids at these schools."
In addition to providing a competitive outlet, and a chance for athletes from different towns to interact, the new league also prevents a halt in momentum for a sport that was growing exponentially at the high school level.
For the spring season that never got started, Mergens said his team had 102 athletes signed up.
In the fall, Northfield Public Schools Community Services typically sponsors the Northfield team in an instructional league to gear up for the spring season. If that is not possible this year, there's now a blueprint for ensuring shooting can continue.
"Not knowing what's going to happen with that this fall," Mergens said, "if they decide to not offer some of those activities, we will just go ahead and put together another league for the fall."