By Clint Kimberling
Imagine a gym full of high school students. But no one’s talking or running. All you can hear is the sound bow strings popping and the thwacking of arrows hitting brightly colored targets. This is high school archery, one of the fastest growing sports in Mississippi.
Archery’s popularity is due in part to the AIMS (Arrows in Mississippi Schools) program administered by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. AIMS is designed to introduce 4th-12th-grade students to the sport of International-Style Target Archery during their physical education classes and as an extracurricular team sport.
Archery as a team sport has certainly found a home in Starkville. This spring was the fourth year that Starkville High School competed in team archery. The sport is gaining popularity among students and had 45 archers on it this year. The team is made up of mostly boys, but about one-third of the team is girls, and 2016 was their best season yet, finishing third in the 6-A state championships.
Tate Fisher and Rhonda Locke share the coaching duties. Fisher, who also coaches varsity football, has been with the program as an assistant coach for two years and took over as head coach this past season. Fisher has some perspective to offer to the team, as a bow hunter himself. He says, “I find it relaxing. Relative to football which is high pressure, high intensity. In archery, it’s just you and the arrow.”
Locke, whose son has been on the team since the beginning, went from being a very involved parent, to joining the team as an assistant coach. Fisher and Locke form a perfect coaching duo with Tate taking on the role of motivator while Rhonda keeps up with logistics.
Without dedicated facilities, the team constructs a makeshift range in the basketball gym. With some creative arrangements of targets and curtains, 20 archers can shoot at once. The team practices four days a week during the season. Parents with archery experience also work with students one-on-one, focusing on proper form and technique.
Everyone uses same the same equipment to keep the playing field level. The bows used in practice and competing are different from the compound bows used for hunting. The big difference Locke tells me is shooting without sights, making it all intuitive for the archer. She explains, “This is why form and repetition are so important. You want the same nocking point and the same anchoring point every time. And the more arrows you shoot, the better you get at it.”
Fisher adds, “The kids that are successful are the ones that focus on fundamentals, pay attention to their anchor and release points. And the ones that practice away from school are going to have success.”
Drake Larson has been a member of the team since he was in 7th grade. He says archery has always been his favorite sport. And his dad, an avid bow hunter helps out by showing the team some techniques. “What I like best of about it are the competitions. And it’s fun traveling to different towns, seeing different places.”
Only 25 archers are allowed to represent the team at competitions. Since the team at Starkville is so large, internal tryouts are held the week of a competition to set the team. Having such a large team makes competition really fierce. “We tell kids, they have to shoot their way on to the bus. And when kids don’t make the bus, it motivates them for the rest of the season,” Locke says.
During competitions, archers take five shots per round, aiming for a 10-point ring in the center. A 50 is a perfect score. Locke says, “I love the fact that you compete as a team, but also against yourself. There’s an element self-improvement from week to week to try for the best score you can get. But also helping the team, too.”
Drake says the competition at Smithville from last season sticks out to him. I had the high score on the team, and I was excited about that.”
The growing popularity of the sport will provide opportunities beyond high school as well. Colleges, Mississippi College in Clinton, for instance, are adding a dedicated archery program that competes in national tournaments. And other colleges in the state have club teams.
Fisher feels like the archery program gives kids who aren’t gifted at a traditional sport a chance to represent their school in a competitive way. And it has positive effects, too, he says, “I see kids work to get better, they have good attitudes, and that’s what it’s all about.”
By Clint Kimberling