State tournament means lots of cheering, face paint and noise…usually. In the upper reaches of the venerable, but revamped and renamed, Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, parents, neighbors and classmates do break out in a round of applause as participants walked off the floor, during the Iowa Department of Natural Resources archery in the schools program state tournament.

During the actual competition, though, the crowd is quiet. More than 800 high school, middle school and elementary students tend to business; filing in to their assigned lanes and standing by for the short verbal commands and series of whistles. There will be congratulations, hugs, selfies taken and score sheets checked outside in the lobby…when they are done.

“They are well trained. They move across the range on the same whistle commands. All the etiquette, the discipline; that’s a testament to the coaches and all the hard work that’s gone into this,” assesses Ben Berka, DNR shooting sports coordinator.

Safety is the first consideration, with 40 archers on the firing range at any one time. But discipline, muscle memory and repetition are critical for success here. It’s much like that free throw in the last seconds of a one point basketball game. Here though? It is like that, every shot.

“It’s kind of like those movies when the whole crowd goes silent,” relates Whitney Brown; a senior at Mount Vernon High School. “You see the crowd cheering but you can’t hear anything. Once you release, it all comes back to reality. It’s a great feeling.”

“What you see here is a small percentage of what is out there, across the state,” explains Berka. “We had almost 2,000 try to qualify, as part of a club activity. That club activity grew out of participation by close to 200 schools in the National Archery in Schools Program (NASP).”

Upwards of 100,000 school kids take part in archery in-school; typically through physical education class. They learn the basics; stance, anchor point, release, safety. As they progress, they might choose club archery, outside the school day. Coaches work with them on muscle memory and concentration. A December through February league schedule sharpens the competition.

“Most archers will tell you, there are really two things you need to do. Number one? Learn how to shoot a ’10.’ Number two? Learn how to do that over and over,” emphasizes Berka. “The mental toughness is really the same skill you take and apply to other parts of life.”

Participation depends on local buy-in. Last year, Bellevue qualified for the national tournament; eventually moving on to the international championship in South Africa. Yet, seven years ago, there were only 18 club members, who did not enter a meet in that first year.

“In the second year, our only regular season meet was snowed out. Our first competition was the state tournament,” recalls coach Gary Purtilo.  We’ve grown since; taken on middle school kids, now the elementary. We had 152 on the team this year. I’ve got some great coaches.”

Woods—from Mount Vernon—has her archery future mapped out, too. She’s handled a bow since sixth grade and has hunted as well. It is not something she will walk away from, as graduation nears.

“It is something I can do with my family, with my kids someday, when I am older,” she says. In the near term, she plans to start a shooting club when she shows up at Central College next fall.

Results from Iowa’s March 1 National Archery in Schools Program are available at Click on Archery in Schools, then on NASP Events and Results to find a link to individual and team standings for high school, middle school and elementary school competitors.

Logo courtesy Iowa Department of Natural Resources

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