It’s a familiar sound and sensation to many recreational shooters, the command that releases a clay pigeon into its brief and fateful flight. When the Rocky Creek Clay Dusters are on the delivering end of the clay’s verdict, more often than not it returns to the Earth as a shower of fluorescent orange smithereens.
The Clay Dusters are a team of around 30 youth shooters based at Rocky Creek Sporting Clays, a facility located just south of Richburg, on Mountain Gap Road. Far out in the country, the group blasts flying targets, honing their skills, and characters, in rural splendor.
When the clay is released though, there isn’t time to think about the scenery or inherent life lessons.
“It’s pretty quick,” teenage shooter Teddy Hutchison said. “You just think ‘alright, I’m gonna shoot this bird here, then move my gun here and shoot this one.’ I get focused and then think about what I’ve got to do.”
“Sporting clays is kind of like golf with a shotgun,” says Tommy Palmer, who coaches one of the Clay Dusters teams and was giving a tour of the Rocky Creek course in late July.
Like golf, competitive sporting clays courses consist of a number of different stations, each with two clay presentations. For example, at one box the first clay might flutter through the air from left to right, while another, called a rabbit, scampers across a hill after being released from a spring-loaded trap machine placed to the far left or right of the shooter. Competitors are allowed to see the clays’ trajectories once before shooting.
“It’s more of a simulated hunting situation,” explained Palmer. “What you would see bird hunting.”
Hutchison was on one of the original Clay Dusters teams. The club officially formed in the summer of 2007, a byproduct of the High Cotton Classic fundraising shoot that was held annually in Chester County at the Darby Farm. Young people volunteered as trappers in the fundraiser, like caddies for the adult shooters. Before long, a bunch of the kid trappers decided that one day of shooting a year wasn’t enough.
Aware of the life education that accompanies learning to use a firearm, the adults were eager to accommodate the youth shooters’ interest and the Clay Dusters were formed. They shot at David Chesnutt’s cabin in Chester County, initially throwing clays off the back deck by hand. Chesnutt saw an opportunity and developed the farm into the top class Rocky Creek Sporting Clays outfit, which boasts two fully mechanized courses for shooters, one of only three such facilities in the state.
They didn’t stop at the local level. Clay Dusters organizers were integral in forming the South Carolina Youth Shooting Foundation, which Chesnutt and others did in conjunction with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Now, over 400 young people shoot sporting clays competitively across the state.
“It was birthed right down on that farm in Chester,” said Hill Muse, a Clay Dusters coach.
The Clay Dusters had 33 youth shooters of varying ages on the roster last season, all supported by a crew of devoted parents who traverse the state on weekends from December to June. Each age category has different divisions and skill levels, and the Clay Dusters excelled in every one of them during the 2012-13 season. Muse’s JV squad went undefeated, while Steven Bobo coached the rookie team to a strong finish at the Junior U.S. Open.
Muse’s team includes several Rock Hill-area teenagers – Hutchison, Andrew Moxley and Sam Gustin. Gustin was a new addition so Muse’s team “worked on some inner-squad mechanics. These guys have been shooting three, four, five years each, so I didn’t have to work too much on the fundamentals,” he explained. “Their biggest challenge was in the mental game.”
Evenings at Rocky Creek provide plenty of focusing practice, as swarming gnats and the glare of setting suns try to distract shooters. At competitions, where golf carts rumble and shots pop all around, maintaining focus in the shooting box isn’t easy, especially for two or three days straight where every target counts. But in June, Muse’s trio made it look that way at the Junior U.S. Open in Georgetown.
“This group won the Junior U.S. Open out of all the Southeast by one target,” Muse said. “It kind of proved the point.”
Focus is just one of the many intangible qualities that the adults aim to instill in the young shooters.
“The whole premise of the program was to teach them sportsmanship, dedication, teamwork, how to be a Southern gentleman or lady,” Muse explained. “Shooting just happens to be the vehicle we all were passionate about and use to convey that message.”
In the young people involved with the Clay Dusters, the teaching manifests as improved grades, attention spans and attitudes.
“I can notice it with homework and tests and stuff,” Hutchison said. “Sometimes you don’t really want to do it but you’ve got to. Then you focus, and do it and get done.”
Safe handling of firearms is imperative.
“We get to teach the kids the proper way to use a firearm, handle a firearm. Safety is the No. 1 thing we get to teach them,” said Palmer, “and just the enjoyment of being outdoors instead of sitting at home.”
The most obvious result of the sporting clays program is the participants become excellent shooters, real crack shots. If you were the boastful type, it’d be easy to get your feelings bruised while shooting with the Clay Dusters, especially 11-year-old Gabe Bobo and 10-year-old Kolbe Curtice. The two youngest shooters at a Rocky Creek gathering on the last day of July are both hawkeye marksmen.
“I call it S.A.D.,” Muse said. “Speed, angle, distance. You’ve got to do that calculation in your head in a matter of seconds to know where to put the gun.”
Such is the shooters’ focus that Muse talks to his charges about pinpointing the unique details of each clay. Each shot uses a distinctive clay, with various shapes, dimples and lines differentiating the orange targets. Seeing the target is the hardest part; then the muscle memory, carved out of numerous repetitions, takes over.
That requires clear minds, particularly during competitions when coaches are not allowed to talk with shooters in the box. Focus and discipline are hallmarks of two young fellows who otherwise might be parked on a couch.
Part of maintaining that clear head is a set routine, one born out of the attention to detail, focus and determination that the shooting program instills. When Bobo steps in the box he has a strict mental progression.
“I always tell myself, ‘do your best; all the other ones don’t matter.’ I relax; I get my foot position right, my muzzle hold, my break-point. I think about it and I kind of just get comfortable. I just breathe and say, ‘pull.’”
Then comes the fun part. The life lessons imparted during countless hours of practice step aside, and the shooter’s mind, now perfectly blank, shifts into autopilot.
“It’s kind of like my dad taught me,” Bobo says. “Just take a deep breath in, let half of it out and then squeeze the trigger.”
Bret McCormick • 329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T