by | Feb 20, 2023

These athletes are archers

It’s practice day at Blair Oaks Middle School in Wardsville and a large group of archers discuss their sport. When two blasts of a whistle from coach Jeremy Tappel sound they grab their bows and head to the line. They stand with bows on toes waiting for the next signal. Now everyone grows quiet, their eyes taking on the cold, steely-eyed stare that hopefully will send five aluminum arrows speeding to the yellow 10 ring.

Jeremy studies the archers standing shoulder to shoulder from one wall of the gym to the other. Satisfied they can proceed safely, he lets loose a single blast from the whistle and the satisfying “thunk” of arrows hitting targets begins.

Scenes like this one play out around the state as archers from schools large and small work on perfecting their aim. When it comes to school sports, nothing compares to Missouri’s National Archery in the Schools Program, or MoNASP. Since its start in 2007, the program has reached 200,000 students at more than 800 schools.

The MoNASP state tournament has outgrown two venues, including the Activity Center at State Technical College of Missouri and the Multipurpose Building at the University of Central Missouri. It currently takes place at the Branson Convention Center where, in 2022, more than 4,300 archers from 218 schools competed over four days while 17,500 spectators watched.

“We’ve got around 65 kids in high school and almost that much in the middle school and we make it a point that they get to compete pretty much all season long,” Jeremy says. “Everyone gets included. I’ve seen kids in wheelchairs, on crutches. I know a kid who was born with a partial right arm and still shoots. It’s incredible.”

Jeremy, the supervisor of distribution engineering services for Central Electric Power Cooperative, is typical of the hundreds of parent-coaches who volunteer their time to help develop student archers. He’s seen a group of kids who otherwise wouldn’t compete in sports at the perennial state playoff school find their niche through MoNASP.

He’s seen one girl who struggled to hit the target and wanted to give up, only to end up qualifying for the state, national and world championships. Another told him MoNASP made him more confident in the deer stand.

“We have softball players on the team. We’ve got some baseball, some basketball and football players. But for the majority, most wouldn’t be involved in anything else if it wasn’t for archery,” he says.

In 2018, Blair Oaks’ Kamryn Twehus won the individual title at the World Tournament. Last year JJ Quehl — dubbed Mr. 300 — became one of only 22 student archers nationwide to shoot a perfect 300 score in a tournament, something organizers of the national program once believed was impossible. That feat required hitting a spot the size of a tennis ball from two distances 30 times. JJ did that twice. His achievements include winning the state title three times, along with taking the U.S. East National and World championships in 2022.

MoNASP is a program of the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation, which help schools get into the program with a $1,500 rebate for equipment. They also provide mandatory training for coaches.

Sponsors of the state tournament include Missouri’s Electric Co-ops, longtime supporters of rural youth who see them as future rural leaders and potential employees.

The archery in the schools program is a great equalizer. “NASP shooting is very basic,” says Sam Bretlinger, a Blair Oaks archer who got started shooting in 4-H. “Everyone shoots the exact same bow. We all shoot the same Genesis 1880 arrows. It’s a very fair sport.”

Size, strength, age and gender rarely determine who comes out on top because the equipment is all the same. Participation is evenly split between boys and girls.

“You can have the biggest football player and you can have the smallest girl and she can compete right alongside of him,” says state Rep. Tim Taylor, another of the hundreds of volunteer coaches and assistants who make MoNASP possible. “It just brings out the best in people and it gives them a lifelong thing to carry with them and to pass on to their next generation.”

Last year Tim was successful in passing legislation that made archery the Missouri state sport. He also brought archery to the two-room Zion Lutheran School in Lone Elm and now serves as assistant coach for Bunceton’s school.

“The best of all worlds is to have parents who can spend the time,” says Tim, who followed his son, Carter, from one school to the next. “It’s a one-day training and it’s very simple to do. Even if they have no archery experience, that training will teach the person how to shoot, how to set up the range. It will make them an archery coach and someone who can change a kid’s life.”

MDC Conservation Educator Ashley Edwards says that while MoNASP competitions are all done indoors, she and other educators teach how to set up an outdoor range as part of their goal to get kids interested in outdoor activities. Some will take the sport into the woods during hunting seasons as well.

“Our goal is every school in Missouri is going to have NASP. Basically, the creators of this stress that archery is fun and safe. And archery is for everyone. It’s all-inclusive and makes kids feel like they are part of something. And then of course scholarships are offered for the top shooters at the state tournament and the national level.”

She adds in order to compete, schools must include at least 10 hours per year of archery instruction. “Their idea was that if it’s taught in schools, they are going to teach it the way it’s supposed to be taught. One of the lines in our teaching is that it is the safest sport next to table tennis. I have never heard of an incident taking place.”

The $1,500 rebate offered schools is enough to get started with eight to 10 bows, arrows and targets Jeremy says. He adds that grants from organizations such as Missouri Whitetails, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the NRA have helped Blair Oaks add better targets, enough bows to outfit the entire team and a safety net to protect the gym walls — though he adds with a laugh that the net is seldom necessary.

“There are lessons being taught and lives being changed thanks to this organization,” he says. And that’s what keeps him coming back to practices after a long day at the cooperative.

 You can learn more about MoNasp here

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