Mr. Big Shot
With 1,000 pairs of eyes on him, he sets the shotgun to his shoulder. On his command the clay pigeons zip into the air. A quiet instant passes before the gun blasts and the clays explode in pieces, falling to the prairie below.
He is Mr. Big Shot.
With its roots coming from England, sporting clays is a shotgun shooting game in which clay pigeons are presented to the shooter in ways that mirror the flight pattern of game birds in their natural habitats.
Drew Benson, a Park 2010 graduate and multi-sport standout for the Wolfpack, has been shooting sporting clays competitively for four years. In that time, he has been a three-time All-American and an All-Midwest selection.
Benson's coach, Cal Munkvold, said Benson is one of the top shooters in the state.
"He's a force to be reckoned with," said Munkvold, who has been involved with the sport since 1987. "When he's shooting, people pay attention. He's one of the top kids in the state and one of the top shooters in Minnesota for sure. I'd say he's definitely in the top five or top 10 -- they don't rank them that way, so I can't say for sure, but those All-American and All-Zone titles are pretty hard to get."
Benson, who is currently in the Master class -- the highest of seven classes within the sport -- tied for first at the "C" Class World Championship back in 2007.
More recently, Benson won the Minnesota State Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP) Championship. The state title qualified Benson for the SCTP National Championship in Sparta, Ill., earlier this month, where he won an invitation to the Pilla Pro Challenge final match at the 2010 National Sporting Clays Championship in San Antonio -- the largest shooting national competition in the country.
"I'm really very proud of Drew," Munkvold said. "I'm just ecstatic with how well he's done. He's been a very coachable, moldable and trainable kid. He's a great kid. He's been one of our senior kids and leaders. His parents have really supported him really too, which is really nice to see."
Benson gives a lot of credit to his parents, Al and Donna, and his grandfather Benny.
"They have supported me throughout everything I've done," Benson said. "They're who I strive to do my best for all the time. They motivate me to do my best because I know it will make them proud."
At the recent SCTP National Championships in Sparta, Ill., roughly 1,500 kids 18-and-under competed in trap, skeet and sporting clays over three days.
Benson won the "make-or-break" competition at the event, earning the maximum amount of points possible. With the win, Benson took home a set of Pilla "Outlaw" shooting glasses and five cases of Remington shotgun shells (a total value of around $1,500) and earned a trip to the Pilla Pro Challenge make-or-break final match in San Antonio, which will be held Oct. 26 to 31.
In Texas, Benson will battle 15 other shooters, 10 of which are professionals, for $25,000 in purse money. The finals will take place under the lights of the National Shooting Complex in San Antonio in front of roughly 1,500 people.
"I am very excited about that," Benson said. "It's a very big deal. I talk to most of the pros on a regular basis as I have been traveling to the bigger shoots and seeing them around a lot I have become pretty good friends with them. They are all very, very nice and very supportive to the youth."
Benson said he looks up to professional shooters Jon Kruger and Andy Duffy -- two of the top gunners in the nation.
"They help me out all the time when we're shooting or just hanging out at shoots," Benson said. "They are just great guys."
Benson began shooting with his neighbors at the age of 14, then, at the urging of fellow shooting enthusiasts John Ross and Kenny Gould started shooting sporting clays at the South St. Paul Gun Club.
"I was looking at an advertisement for it and they told me to come and shoot with them," Benson said. "I thank those two guys, John and Kenny, for getting me started into the game I love so much now."
Currently, Benson spends three to four days a week practicing, including every Monday night at the South St. Paul Gun Club along with his team -- the South St. Paul Clay Crashers -- under the tutelage of Munkvold.
"Coach Munkvold has gotten me to where I am today," Benson said. "He has helped me mentally, given me all the edges possible to get me to where I am now and helped me to win all the championships I have won."
Benson said he also likes to practice on his own and studies about the mental aspect of the game in his free time.
"I read a few books about the mental parts of the game," Benson said. "I haven't read them for a while since I'm always busy, but they helped me get over the hump and to the top of the scoreboards once I got to master class."
As a shooter competes in events, they accrue points or "punches" by winning the events, which go toward their class ranking, from Master, the top, to "E" at the bottom. Benson reached the Master level in his second year of shooting.
"It takes some guys lifetimes to get to the Master class and some people never even reach that goal," Benson said. "But, if you don't get any punches in your class in a year you get bumped down a class. That will never happen to me."
Shooting ranks with baseball as top sport
This fall, Benson will attend Southwest Minnesota State University on a baseball scholarship. As a senior, Benson, a pitcher and first baseman, was second on the Wolfpack in batting average, hitting .368, homeruns, with three and RBI with 20, earning All-Conference Honors. In addition to starring for the local nine, Benson was an All-State high jumper for the Wolfpack -- finishing second on Park's All-Time list at 6-6 -- earning All-Conference four years and the Suburban East Conference championship twice. He was also a three-year varsity player for the Park boys basketball team.
However, Munkvold said a person doesn't need to be a gifted athlete to compete in shooting clays.
"With shooting, you don't have to be a great physical athlete like Drew is," Munkvold said. "But, he's really competitive and that helps him. He really strives to compete at a high level. Also, obviously, you need good hand-eye coordination and the ability to focus and concentrate. You also need to be able to be coached in order to learn how to do it. Practice makes perfect, but correct practice makes perfect."
Benson said he ranks shooting right next to baseball as his No. 1 sport.
"In team sports you can only do what you can do and the team has to do what they can do," Benson said. "In sporting clays, it's all based on what I do and not anyone else. There is nothing to blame except yourself.
Benson said he nearly went to college to shoot sporting clays on a scholarship at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, but chose to pursue baseball instead.
"Lindenwood is like a five-time defending national champion, but I felt it was too far away," Benson said. "It would have been a good thing to do, but my goal ever since I was a little kid is to play pro baseball and that's still what I'm chasing. Southwest had two players drafted this last year."
Benson said he plans on obtaining a degree in pharmacy from Southwest Minnesota State. But, if he doesn't make it to the pros with baseball, he wants to try and return to the sport of shooting clays full time.
"I'd like to become an instructor and travel as a pro and make that my living," Benson said. "That's been another huge goal of mine ever since I was getting into the sport. I love helping kids and other people that are struggling with shooting. It makes me feel good to put a smile on their face by giving them a hint that helps them hit a few more birds. I love doing that kind of thing for others, especially younger kids as they are the future of the sport.
"That's how I go to where I am. There are so many people in the sport I look up to and that have helped me to get where I am today. Each and every shooter at the South St. Paul Gun Club has helped me some way."