When Darby's Austin Ward readied for a sporting clays shooting practice with coach Mike Potts at the Missoula Trap and Skeet Club last month, he got a bit of the rock star treatment from some of the club members there that day.
At 13-years-old, though, Ward was quite a bit younger than those who picked his brain while also offering encouragement ahead of the Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP) National Championships starting Saturday and running through July 20 in Marengo, Ohio.
DARBY — Competitive shooting takes focus, particularly in the sporting clays event. Just ask Darby 13-year-old Austin Ward, who won the D Class state championship last week in Polson at the Big Sky Sporting Clays with an 85-83-168 in the main event.
"He doesn't need any more practice — he's got this," one of the club's members said half-joking before walking back to her range.
While that's obviously not true — there's always things to fine tune when competing at the highest level, like Ward will be doing next week in Ohio — it certainly shows the high opinion of Ward in and around Montana's competitive shooting community. He's earned it.
In June, Ward won his second straight sporting clays state championship title with a score of 85-83-168 in the D Class main event. That comes a year after his 2018 state title in the E Class and and before a host of other successful shooting events this summer, including a first-place skeet medal in Cody, Wyoming, in early June.
Ward wore his 2018 state-title trophy — a glitzy belt buckle that contrasts with his humble demeanor — while practicing with coach Mike Potts at the mid-June practice.
"I bring him out to shoot with me and my friends and everybody turns around and looks at me and says what do you got here? This kid’s phenomenal," Potts said before his practice session with Austin.
"Now, he's a little sluggish today, but he's special," Potts added midway through their practice on a particularly blustery day.
Just like the other Missoula Trap and Skeet Club members, the straight-shooting Potts has high expectations for Ward. Potts set up the practice on a day the weatherman called for wind because he wanted to challenge Ward.
The young teenager — who caught a snack break of peanut M&M's before running through a simulated skeet competition — did show some out-of-character signs of frustration due to the weather.
But he also showed off what made him special, nearly posting a perfect round in his skeet scrimmage to end the practice session.
"His eyesight, his quickness is there, (and) he doesn’t get upset," Potts explained.
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Ward will need those traits, and more, at his first SCTP National Tournament.
Ward, his mom and dad, Dawn and Damon Ward, head out on the road for the 1,900-mile journey to Ohio on Thursday. There at the SCTP Nationals, they'll meet some 300 teams and 3,000 athletes from 26 states based on last year's tournament numbers. Austin didn't attend the tournament a year ago, but this summer he joins the Billings Smoking Guns youth shooting team and a handful of teammates at the event.
The team has had success in past years at the national tournament.
"It’s like a silent competition to see who can hit the most between us," Ward said. "We always want to win the team awards, and they (placed) in an overall team award at nationals (last year)."
But the conditions will be different for the Montana shooters. Instead of the lofty elevation in Missoula of 3,200 feet, Marengo sits at about 1,100 feet above sea level. High humidity and a forecast for rain next week also alters the path of the clay pigeons and brings an added challenge to shooters from other states.
"They'll drop really fast, so you have to shoot quicker," Ward explained.
It's all about fine-tuning at high levels of competition, after all.
"That’s exactly what we’re doing," Potts said. "When I walked out here today with him I told him what we’re going to work on today is hitting birds."
And hitting clay birds is something Ward is literally the best at for his age in the state of Montana. Potts reminded his pupil of that while wrapping up his coaching session last month.
"Remember the three things we talked about: Relaxation, confidence and concentration. If you’re having any kind of confidence problem, remember this: You’ve hit whatever shot you’re looking at hundreds if not thousands of times," Potts said. "They’re going to look at you as just some kid from Montana until they put up the first scores and then everybody is going to be like, ‘Wow.’ Then you’re going to have people following you around."
Rock star treatment indeed, and surely high expectations for a first-time National Championship appearance.
But for a crack shot like Ward, success at nationals is certainly not out of the question.