CHAMPAIGN — The sport of archery is growing in popularity around the country, being featured in kids books and movies.
And it's growing in popularity — and success — at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, as well.
The school, which started an archery team this year, is sending two sixth-graders, Luke Greaser and Braden Olmstead, to compete in nationals May 11 and 12 in Louisville, Ky.
Coaches Lynne Srull and Greg Schweighart are expecting even more students to participate next year. Archery was a hot topic when fifth-graders came to the school for an open house, Srull said, and the sport is getting some attention because of the popularity of "The Hunger Games," which features a main character who's a skilled archer.
Srull is a physical education teacher at Jefferson and started teaching archery in PE last year. She said students request it repeatedly in class. She connected with Schweighart when his daughter, Bailee, brought in her bow to show other students.
They decided to put together a team through the National Archery in the Schools program, and have taught 19 students about safety and technique. The team came in third place in the state tournament, and Greaser and Olmstead advanced to nationals.
Because archery isn't a sport through the Illinois Elementary School Association, Srull said, it's not funded through the school.
She was able to buy equipment using grants from local Pheasants Forever and Whitetails Unlimited chapters, as well as the East Central Illinois Archers.
Jeff Reinhold from the latter organization also came in once or twice a week to help team members with their technique.
He said he enjoyed teaching the students as they developed their technique and said it gives students an athletic outlet with a choice beyond basketball, football and softball.
"I wish every middle school had this," Reinhold said.
Srull and Schweighart said they hope other local schools will start archery programs, to allow for more competition. They've found that people involved in other programs are happy to help.
Jerry and Kim Kuchenbrod, who have coached archery in Armstrong, gave them quite a bit of guidance and also helped their team members, Srull said.
Kim Kuchenbrod said archery is a fast-growing sport, featured in both "The Hunger Games" and another new movie called "Brave," from Disney and Pixar.
Archery appeals to both very athletic children and those who might not be so typically athletic.
"It takes a lot of mental stamina, more so than physical stamina," she said.
Kuchenbrod said a school has to offer archery in PE before it can form a team. She explained that it's typical for local clubs to donate money to get a team started, and then teams usually start hosting tournaments to help pay for their programs. They are writing a grant, Srull said. To keep costs down, team members share equipment and Schweighart said he's repaired hundreds of broken arrows.
Srull and Schweighart said they're not sure if they'll put together a tournament, but they've talked about it.
They have also talked about what their program will look like next year. They could have up to two teams, one with 24 sixth-graders, and one with 24 seventh- and eighth-graders.
Olmstead and Greaser said they're nervous about nationals, but they've been practicing. Both were interested in archery and shooting at home before trying it out at school. On the archery team, they use the school's equipment, which is the same as everyone else's competing. They also use the same bow and set of arrows each time, to ensure consistency. As they've gotten better, they've learned more technique, like to be careful not to move their heads or arms right after shooting because it will affect their shot.
Schweighart said when the team first started practicing, more of their arrows ended up on the ground than in the targets in the team's range in the school's all-purpose room. A few weeks later though, that changed as the students improved. Each team member set individual goals, which they later sailed past, Schweighart said.
And while the sport focuses on discipline and safety, it's also clear that the team members have fun. Their shooting range features a variety of hanging stuffed animals, full of holes, that have been used as targets.
Jim Cox, the treasurer of the Champaign County Pheasants Forever chapter and Greaser's grandfather, said his organization loves working with kids, especially when it comes to teaching them about sporting and conservation.
"We're trying to get kids to realize that there are still things to do outside in the wild, get them to connect with nature a little bit," Cox said.
Mark Dalton, of the Illini Chapter of Whitetails Unlimited, said supporting Jefferson's archery team fits well with the organization's goal of youth education.
"Hunting as a whole is kind of a dying breed ... to me and to a lot of us it's important to get our kids involved in shooting programs and things like that," Dalton said. "I'd put archery right up there with golf. You've got to be very discplined; you've got to practice. ... It just teaches some skills that you wouldn't normally get."