By Bruce Coleman
MC Communications Specialist
While shooting her first practice round of sporting clays, Gracen Lancaster realized she had discovered a lifelong passion.
Growing up in a family that nurtured her love of the outdoors – Lancaster bagged her first deer at 5 and proceeded to hunt virtually every animal that walked on four legs – she was introduced to her favorite pastime at 13 when her high school in Utica formed a sporting clay team.
Often referred to as “golf with a shotgun,” sporting clays are the closest to field shooting of all shotgun sports. Courses are designed to simulate the hunting of ducks, pheasants, and even rabbits, and many hunters shoot sporting clays to sharpen their wing-shooting skills.
Targets may be thrown from any angle or distance, and different-sized targets help simulate actual hunting conditions.
After that initial introduction to sporting clays, “I knew this was what I wanted to do with all of my free time, and I wanted to win everything I could within the sport.”
In ninth grade, she excelled in shooting skeet, trap, and sporting clays to win the girls’ state championship for the first time. She had her sights set on a finer target, though.
“The day I won, I told my parents that I was going to beat the boys, too, before I graduated,” she said.
She practiced harder than ever, and during her 11th grade season, made good on her vow. She won the Top Gun competition with a score of 192 out of 200.
Now a freshman in college, the chemistry/pre-physician assistant major is looking forward to helping Mississippi College resuscitate a sporting clay program that has been dormant since the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I loved shooting in the Mississippi Scholastic Shooting Program because I got to compete against some incredible shooters in high school,” Lancaster said. “I am excited to shoot on the collegiate level, meet people from all over the country, and face even harder competition.”
When he was in third grade, Greg Garrett first encountered sporting clays when his father entered him in the local 4H Club’s shooting sports program. The youngster from San Angelo, Texas, loved shooting shotguns, and became so proficient that, by the time he enrolled at Texas A&M University, he competed on the Aggies’ highly regarded Trap and Skeet Team.
After receiving his degree, Garrett enrolled in law school at Mississippi College. When he heard about the resurgence of the Christian University’s Sporting Clay Team, the second-year legal eagle wanted one more shot at competing.
The biggest obstacle is finding enough time to practice.
“Shooting is my escape from the library and casebooks,” Garrett said. “I look forward to every second I get to spend on the course, and my practices are more deliberate.
In high school and college, I would shoot a couple thousand rounds in preparation for a tournament. Now, I’m lucky to shoot 100, but those 100 will be as perfect as I can make them.”
Mississippi College formed its first sporting clay team about 15 years ago. Jim Turcotte, vice president and executive director of the MC alumni association, remembers how much the student-athletes enjoyed practicing and competing in tournaments on its pristine home course at Providence Hill in Jackson and other venues throughout the Southeast.
“Providence Hill is recognized as one of the top destinations in the U.S. for shooting sporting clays,” Turcotte said. “It attracts a lot of talented shooters and exposes our student-athletes to a best-in-class shooting facility.”
This year, after taking a break during the pandemic, “We’re bringing MC’s sporting clay team back.”
Lancaster and Garrett are two of the four exceptional shooters who make up the current roster, which is slated to compete next month in its first tournament in years. The team will be severely outnumbered in its first match at San Antonio, Texas – “Ideally, we would like 10 to 12 team members,” Turcotte admits – but its talent is apparent. All it needs is some support.
Shooting enthusiasts from throughout the Southeast and devoted followers of MC will have the opportunity to help support the University’s next generation of shooters while enjoying a thrilling day on the team’s home course during the Mississippi College Shot Cup, a sporting clay shoot at Providence Hill, scheduled for Friday, March 1.
Some of the biggest names in outdoor sports are expected to join recreational shooters as they compete in five-person squads to have their team name engraved on the coveted silver bowl. Registration will begin at 12:30 p.m. The teams will shoot a round of sporting clays at more than a dozen stations along the mustang course with hoops.
Prizes will be awarded to all shooters on the top three teams. Dinner will follow the tournament, which will include silent and live auctions of valuable outdoor gear and supplies. The cost is $1,500 per team. Sponsorships ranging from $1,000 to $15,000 are available.
Turcotte said MC Shot Cup participants will have an opportunity to meet members of MC’s sporting clay team.
“We want them to get to know our student-athletes, hear their stories, and understand what our sporting clay program has to offer,” Turcotte said.
To grow the program, Turcotte has turned to one of the state’s most recognizable figures in outdoor sports.
Shooting isn’t just a passion for Josh Raggio – it’s a way of life.
The Belhaven graduate has received national recognition for the high-quality customized duck calls he creates. Hunters travel across the country to shop at Raggio Mercantile in Raymond.
The father of a 6-year-old son, Raggio wants his hunting heritage to survive him.
“I have deep concerns for what hunting will look like when my son is older,” Raggio said. “I want to see shot gunning and hunting passed down, not only to the generation below me, but multiple generations below me.
“When Dr. Turcotte offered me the opportunity to coach the sporting clay team and get these college kids involved in shooting, I wanted to pass along what I could.”
An avid shooter since he was 8, Raggio understands there’s more to sporting clay success than being a great shot.
“It’s like any other sport – you’ve got to have physical ability, but there’s also the mental side to consider,” he said. “Anytime you’re put under the pressure of competition, things change. All of a sudden, someone is keeping score, and there’s a whole new element to what you are doing.
“Shooting sporting clays is essentially a one-man show. For the most part, you’re shooting by yourself. All eyes are on you, and there’s some pressure with that. You can get in a slump. But these kids naturally have a competitive mindset and nature, which you need to be competitive.”
One of the beauties of shooting competitions, Raggio said, is the relatively level playing field.
“I’ve taken my 6-year-old and my 11-year-old out to shoot, and we see guys that are 70 and 80 years old who are still enjoying the sport,” he said. “In sporting clay competition, gender doesn’t matter, size doesn’t matter, and to a degree, ability doesn’t matter. It’s desire that matters.
“Grayson and Greg are really talented shooters and they have been competing for a long time. For other members of our team, this may be their first time in competitive shooting. I hope it will turn into something they will pursue from now on and teach their kids how to do it one day.”
The support MC’s sporting clay team receives from the MC Shot Cup will go a long way toward sustaining the sport on campus.
All proceeds from the event will go toward sending the team to the National Collegiate Competition in San Antonio during the week of March 18 and covering the costs of materials and practice space.
“It’s not an inexpensive sport to participate in,” Raggio concedes. “The MC Shot Cup gives our supporters a chance to donate to a cause they believe in – to see the next generation continue to shoot, continue to be outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen, and to represent Mississippi College with distinction.
“It gives them a way to support the future of hunting and shooting.”
Raggio knows it could take years to build a top-ranked collegiate sporting clay program, The University’s foremost goal is to provide a quality Christian education for all its students – not necessarily to win every sporting clay tournament. But the two could go hand in hand.
“We want the program to become self-sufficient,” he said. “Our goals are to grow the team, make it better, and become more recognized throughout the country for our shooting ability.
“We want to attract the best shooters from across the nation and give them the Christian education and foundation that MC is known for.”
Preregistration for the MC Shot Cup is preferred. For more information or to register, click here.
Individuals unable to attend the event but who would like to support MC’s sporting clay team are encouraged to contact Turcotte at firstname.lastname@example.org or Raggio at email@example.com.