After suffering from a concussion during his freshman year of football, Taite Place was forced to find a different way to spend his after-school time instead of playing contact sports.
Sawyer Hamilton, busy with wrapping up his high school career, decided not to go out for a spring, school-affiliated sport after competing with Ellsworth's wrestling team one final season but wanted an escape from the stresses of senior year.
They filled their voids by spending their springs with the Claybreakers - Ellsworth's clay target shooting team - and found plenty of enjoyment and success by the end of their season.
Hamilton and Place traveled to Mason, Mich. the second weekend in July for the USA High School Clay Target League's National Championship where - along with Ethan White, Kodi Bull and Mike Langer - they finished 38th out of 207 teams at the Sunday, July 14 Team Finals.
Over 2,000 of the nation's best youth clay target shooters made their way to the MTA Homegrounds for the weekend, and although the Claybreakers' may not have been shooting with $20,000 guns like some of their competitors, they made their presence known. Along with finishing 38th in the team tournament, Hamilton and Place both had notable individual performances.
Hamilton, who traveled to Nationals last year as an incoming senior, said he walked into his final target shooting tournament sticking to his season-long motto.
"Since Day 1 they just told us to have fun," Hamilton said, "and if you're not liking a sport you can do this and have fun with it and become good at it."
Feeling little pressure at the National tournament, Hamilton tried to convey his mentality to his underclassmen teammates.
"I was like, 'Hey, you're here, these people don't know you, it shouldn't be that intimidating because it's not that physically demanding,'" Hamilton recalled. "'They might have cool guns or whatever, but you just have to go out there and shoot and only think about yourself.' It's you and the clay, kind of. You don't really pay attention to your own teammates when you're shooting with them."
Hamilton shot 96 out of 100 targets on Friday in the team qualifying round and 97 out of 100 targets during Saturday's individual qualifying round, despite having to shoot an entire round of 25 targets by himself after his squad started its first round without him.
Hamilton qualified for Sunday's individual finals but was sidetracked by car troubles Saturday night and shot less than his best the following morning. With little chance of landing a top-100 finish, Hamilton decided to have some fun with his final day as a Claybreaker.
The Ellsworth High School graduate decided to make the most of his fixed full choke semi-automatic by testing to see how long he could let clay targets hang in the air before shooting them down. He then proceeded to alternate shooting with his left and right hands in between shots, entertaining the crowd and throwing off his competitors.
"I was flipping back and forth, shooting left, shooting right and just watching everybody else in my group get screwed up from it because it was throwing off their tempo and movement and stuff," Hamilton said. "It was a lot of fun."
Hamilton finished shooting a 40 out of 50 in his atypical performance, finished the afternoon with an 84 out of 100 and ended up in 379th place out of 1,691 individual shooters.
Sunday was Hamilton's final day of competing with an Ellsworth team, but the soon-to-be member of the Air Force said his last day with the Claybreakers brought little sadness.
Why did you decide to come out for the clay target shooting team?
"I wanted to go to this Nationals tournament because I knew it was the last thing I would do with school and people from the school," Hamilton said. "But I had a lot more fun than I was sad about it."
Place, with three years of his clay target shooting career still ahead of him, finished 151st after Sunday's individual finals and his 385 of his 400 total targets over the course of the three-day tournament.
The incoming Ellsworth sophomore said he wasn't shooting "the greatest" at the start of the season while he was still recovering from his concussion and shooting in the mid-30s out of 50, but some guidance from Claybreakers supervisor Denton Achenbach allowed him to elevate his shooting skills before Nationals.
"Around State I started shooting better, and Denton showed me a few things," Place said. "He told me that I was just shooting too fast and that I just needed to relax and follow the bird a little longer."
The utilized advice paid off in the form of a 99 out of 100 score in Sunday's team finals. Place hit his first target, missed his second, then proceeded to hit 98 straight.
"Everyone shot at least 90 out of 100 and I shot a 99," Place recalled when asked about his highlight of the weekend. "That was pretty incredible for me."
Place is obviously responsible for the majority of the progression he showed over the course of his first season with the Claybreakers, but the judge-free environment his teammates and Achenbach created deserve some credit, too.
"You just go down there and shoot and eat, and it's pretty chill - you don't have to worry about anything," Place said. "Everybody was nice and friendly, and nobody is going to judge you on how you shot."
Will he be back next spring?