By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
Mississippi’s fastest growing sport doesn’t involve running or tackling or a ball.
Whether interest begins with 4-H programs or the movie “The Hunger Games,” students are asking for archery in schools and trying out for the accuracy-driven sport.
With the growing popularity comes growing talent, and three Northeast Mississippi schools – each with archery programs only about two years old – brought home state championships this year. Saltillo won the 5A championship, Hatley the 2A crown and Myrtle the 1A title.
Coaches Mark Davidson of Saltillo, Jennifer Taylor of Hatley and Keith Speck of Myrtle each give credit to students who were committed and gave their best in a stressful environment.
“I’m told archery is the fastest-growing sport in the state, if not in the nation,” said Davidson, who has been shooting competitively for more than 25 years. Though some aspects of school shooting competitions are different from the traditional long bow and recurve bow that he has used, shooters must use the same skills of shooting without a sight and using the fingers without an aid.
“Our program was in its second year,” Davidson said. “We were able to win the state championship for the division and also the overall state championship back-to-back in our first two years because the kids were dedicated, put in their time and worked hard.”
Saltillo went on to compete in the nationals in Louisville, Ky., in May, where they came in 21st out of almost 10,000 shooters.
“We didn’t shoot to our potential there,” Davidson said. “I think the big match pressure kind of got the best of them.”
Saltillo’s top scorer at the state competition was Landon Jones, with Caitlin Rigby joining him as a team leader. Rigby, 17, will be a senior in the fall and was Saltillo’s top female scorer. Her interest in archery started with 4-H.
“I’ve always been interested in sports and still shoot with 4-H too,” Rigby said. “After I shoot it gets me excited to see most of my arrows in the yellow. It makes me so happy. The most advice I could give someone else is to take your time, not rush and have fun.”
Each school program has about 40 students overall, and the top 26 are able to attend state competition, 24 shooting and two alternates.
“What excites me about archery is that it’s a sport where girls can compete with guys,” said Hatley’s Taylor, a longtime bow hunter. “It gets people who are not involved in other sports. They may think they’re not athletic enough for some other sport, but in this one all they have to have is accuracy.”
Two of Hatley’s team members graduated in May, but 24 will be returning. After tryouts for seventh- through 12th-graders, 40 students made the team.
Hatley’s top shooter, Braeden Eldridge, graduated in May.
“I got into archery because it was something new,” he said. “I’d played baseball and tried other things, but when I tried this it stuck. The first year everybody was really young. I’ve always been around hunting, shotguns and been in the outdoors, but nobody else on the team shot bows or hunted. The next year they really stepped up, and when I shot bad they stepped in.”
Eldridge sees his archery career ending with high school as he moves on to college and hopes later the Marine Corps.
Myrtle, too, is fortunate to be bringing back all of its team except one graduate. Speck, a bow-hunter for more than 20 years, was tapped to start up the program just more than two years ago.
“There usually isn’t a lot of money for schools to start new programs, but we got two grants so the school was out very minimal cost to start it up,” he said.
Factors also mentioned by the other coaches – that it’s a coed sport and that people who may not consider themselves to be athletic can represent their school in a sport – also appeal to Speck.
The competition builds the student’s confidence, but the final outcome “boils down to who is hot on that particular day,” Speck said. “We were very fortunate the past two years to shoot our best score at the state tournament.”
Sixteen-year-old Kelsey Whitten, who will be a senior, has been his top shooter the past two years.
“I like archery because it’s something different,” Whitten said. “I used to play softball a lot, then tried archery out and really liked it. I practice in my yard out back, make a target and do it until my arm starts hurting. I can’t really get tired of it.”
Whitten says that attitude of wanting to keep practicing and getting better is something she got from Speck.
“I probably wouldn’t be where I am now if the coach didn’t push us,” Whitten said. “If we would miss practice or something, he’d impress on us how important it was, so I probably wouldn’t have achieved anything without him.”
Accommodating the need
Soon, though, archery shooters around Northeast Mississippi won’t need to fix a practice place in their own yards like Whitten does.
Bryan Ellis expects to open Mudcreek Archery, an indoor archery center on Barnes Crossing Road, later this month.
“There’s no other archery facility like it around here,” Ellis said. “We were driving to Michie, Tenn., an hour and 15 minutes, and they only have a small range for one or two people to shoot. It’s nothing like what we’ve got.”
Mudcreek includes moving targets, pop-up targets, the computer simulation game, Techno Hunt, and more. With assistance from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, they also will have the same equipment and targets schools use.”
“They have been very helpful to me, providing me with data about the number of shooting licenses they issue and other advice,” Ellis said. “We’re self-titling it as ‘Mississippi’s most advanced indoor archery range.’ We’re going to hold non-school-affiliated tournaments that kids can enter so they have a place to go to shoot after school.”
Some youths also are introduced to archery through 4-H programs of the Mississippi State University Extension Service, with Alcorn County 4-H agent Tammy Parker as the district shooting sports coordinator.
“We have about 140 youths from 23 counties in the archery program,” Parker said. “It has increased over the past several years. Alcorn County has 10 kids, but the only holdback is adult volunteers who will agree to go through the certification training. We could probably have 50 kids if we had enough adult volunteers to work with them.”
Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks also can take pride in the spread of archery among Mississippi youths. Archery in Mississippi Schools is a program supported by the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Foundation, coordinating the implementation of archery programs in public and private schools.
“This is a continuation of the ongoing effort by the Foundation and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to attract Mississippi youth into the out-of-doors and to support Mississippi schools in their effort to improve the physical condition of the youth and to provide youth with a pastime that they can utilize throughout their lives,” the Mississippi Archery In Schools website says.
Program coordinator Waldo Cleland resides in Columbia, and conducts training programs for school archery coaches as well as volunteer coaches.
Davidson retired from Saltillo at the close of school, but is excited about the new shooting facility where he’ll be able to keep using his skills.
“It’s exciting that the new archery complex will be very friendly to the school competition style of shooting, with the kind of bows and targets schools use,” he said. “Any area student who wants to get in practice outside of school will have a place to go.”
WHAT: Archery in Mississippi Schools (AIMS) – Northeast Mississippi Participating Schools: Amory, East Union, Hatley, Itawamba AHS, Mantachie, Myrtle, Nettleton, North Pontotoc, Oxford, Pine Grove, Potts Camp, Prentiss Christian, Ripley, Saltillo, South Pontotoc, Tremont, Tupelo, West Union
CONTACT Waldo Cleland, State coordinator for National Archery in Schools Program, (601) 674-0777
WHAT: Mudcreek Archery
WHERE: 2277 Barnes Crossing Road, Saltillo
WHEN: Tentative opening date, June 24
FOR MORE INFORMATION: firstname.lastname@example.org