POWELL — Before coming to Northwest College, Sasa Starkjohann had never even held a shotgun. Then she joined the school’s trap and skeet club — and is now preparing to head to the national Collegiate Clay Target Championships.
The LaBarge native was lucky: A friend and former club member told Starkjohann about the group. Despite its 30-year history, few know the club exists, but word is spreading — and the club is starting to grow.
You don’t need experience to join; you don’t even need a gun. All you really need is the desire to shoot and some dedication to get a place on the team, said Vernon Ward, adviser to the club.
“It’s open to anybody that wants to come out with us. There’s no restrictions,” Ward said before a Friday practice. “People will come out here who’ve never shot before and they end up doing really well.”
Starkjohann is a perfect example, he said.
“When she first started shooting, she struggled, but worked hard,” Ward said. “She’s had good days and bad days, learned a lot and now she’s a heck of a shooter.”
Ward and Chris Dugger both work in NWC’s student services department and volunteer to advise the team. As the team took to their field at the Heart Mountain Rod and Gun Club on Friday, the first task at hand was to shovel. Snow had blown in and deep drifts meant practice would be slightly delayed. The biggest problem was being limited to only one shovel.
Not every team practices in such extreme elements, but this is Wyoming and there’s no time to take a day off; the national competition is about a month away. Three shooters from the NWC club — Starkjohann, Nathan Vaughn of Shepherd, Montana, and Dawson Bender of Worden, Montana — will be flying to San Antonio’s National Shooting Complex in late March to compete with thousands of other collegiate shooters.
Word of mouth is one of the best kinds of advertising. It took a year before former member Micah McClure found out about the club. Then, in his sophomore year, he helped lead the team to a third place finish in the competition. Now a graduate student seeking a master’s in plant sciences for a career in agriculture, he’s heading back to nationals, this time as one of the top 10 shooters for the University of Wyoming.
“I’ve had some of my best competitions shooting for U-Dub,” McClure said, adding, “I’m well-situated on the team and have made lots of new friends.”
McClure is pretty humble about his success. For him, it’s all about the team. But the NWC alum has done well at UW winning several individual awards at regional competitions this year.
He started young, competing in shooting sports in 4-H contests. Current trap and skeet club member Tanner Barngrover of Powell got his start the same way. However, the NWC sophomore is pretty happy his first experience shooting clays wasn’t his last.
“They took me to the Cody trap range and we shot 15 times. I didn’t hit a single one; I was so upset,” Barngrover recalled. “But then I went pheasant hunting later that day and I killed two pheasants. I was like, OK, I do like this.”
Options were limited because, unlike Cody, Powell High School doesn’t have a club. But Barngrover stayed with 4-H, often practicing with his father, and picked up more experience while attending activities with Polestar, a Christian outdoor sports organization in Powell.
Starkjohann is excited to be on the traveling team, but for her, shooting is also helpful with her studies.
Club members are required to keep a satisfactory grade point average to remain on the team and “last semester, I got my highest GPA in the three years that I’ve been at college here,” Starkjohann said.
Participating in the sport also helps with stress management, she said. “I get to come out and shoot the stress away.”
McClure, of Ronan, Montana, agrees.
“Shooting is a way to help me relax, taking the stress out of all the work. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “When I’m out on the range, I forget about everything in the world and just concentrate on shooting.”
The NWC club leans on experienced shooters like Chris Hoellwarth and former adviser Ken Beebe, both from Powell. The club also invites guest speakers — including Allen Treadwell, a three-time National record holder, three-time World Championship Team member, 10-time World Cup team member, and 2004 Olympic Team alternate.
The club gets a small amount of its funding from the college, but the discipline is expensive, in addition to the cost of traveling to competitions. The team is in the middle of fundraising efforts — a raffle. The sale of tickets is the NWC team’s largest annual revenue generator, though it also gets help from community businesses and local organizations, like the Wyoming Outdoorsmen.
“We get a little bit of [NWC] funding being a club, but it’s not very much, so we rely on our fundraising, especially the last couple years, because our supporting institution has changed their funding model; it’s not as easy to get money from them as it used to be,” Ward said. “So it’s been super important for us to raise funds to put money back into the club.”
The team anticipates spending about $12,000 on airfare, hotels, food and fees for the national competition in Texas.