14-year-old excels in sport despite being legally blind
GEORGETOWN — At the whistle, eighth-grader Hope Bogard carefully yet firmly pulls back the string of her bow, aims and fires. Her arrow strikes near the center of a round target at the other end of the Mary Miller Junior High gym.
Before the next whistle at the two-minute mark, the slender 14-year-old, who's been fascinated with archery since she first saw Disney's animated "Robin Hood," lets several more arrows fly.
They all land in or near the inner circle on the target, which Hope actually can't see very well.
Legally blind, she can only make out the colors within the rings on the target, not the black lines that separate the rings.
Yet, according to coach Hilah O'Neal, Hope has become one of the better shooters on the archery team at Georgetown's Mary Miller Junior High, which has won the Illinois state archery championship the last two years and hopes to repeat Saturday in Springfield.
But Hope's shooting wasn't always so accurate — especially when she first tried the sport as a sixth-grader.
"I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn to save my life. I kept hitting the net," Hope said, referring to a big net draped behind all the targets.
O'Neal said Hope shed some tears along the way that first season. But she didn't give up, and the coaches kept working with her.
"I was just too stubborn and pig-headed. I really do not like quitting things," said Hope, explaining how the coaches worked on her stance and her aim and eventually helped her find her "sweet spot."
By the end of her sixth-grade season, she was hitting targets consistently and nabbed a fourth-place finish at one tournament. "She has her own way of seeing the target. You can't teach her how to do it. She's done great," O'Neal said.
"I'm not really the world's best when it comes to physical sports," said Bogard, adding that archery has given her confidence and taught her to control her nerves, especially in front of other people. "It's not a physical thing. It's more of a mental thing."
Students like Hope are just one reason O'Neal and other area coaches are enjoying this fast-growing sport.
"A lot of kids can't do other sports, other team sports. They're not agile ... but anybody can do this, including kids that have a disability," said O'Neal, who retired from teaching in 2007 but has continued coaching the school's archery team on a volunteer basis. "There are more rewards with this program than full-time teaching."
Georgetown-Ridge Farm's middle and high school teams will be among nine area schools sending young archers to the state tournament, but it's not the only Vermilion County school hoping to repeat as champion of Illinois. Schlarman Academy won last year's state title at the high school level. Armstrong-Potomac also has a storied tradition at state.
And in Champaign, Jefferson Middle School started a program in 2012, and sent two sixth-graders to nationals that first year. Jefferson will be competing in Springfield on Saturday along with first-year teams from Central and Centennial.
O'Neal and Schlarman Coach Roberto Rangel know the competition is ramping up as more schools add archery teams through the National Archery in Schools Program, a curriculum-based education initiative that started in Kentucky in 2002 and has spread across the nation.
There's no qualification for the state tournament, except that schools must have an NASP-certified program and field a team of 12 to 24 kids with at least four of each gender. O'Neal is taking a high school team of 23 and three junior high teams. Schlarman will bring 45 middle and high school students.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources hosts the state tournament at the state fairgrounds. According to the agency, there will be 873 archers from 32 schools competing this weekend in three divisions — elementary (grades four and five), middle school and high school. In 2013, the tourney drew about 700 archers, up from 400 the year before.
Chris Young with the natural resources agency said because of the sport's growth, state tournament organizers are considering some type of qualification system, like sectionals in basketball. Young said they'd like to get the number of archers in the state finals down to 600.
Knowing the competition is getting stiffer — and how mental a sport archery can be — O'Neal is trying not to put pressure on the kids for Saturday.
"Hopefully they are going to go there and shine," she said.
On the mark
Of the 32 grade, middle and high schools competing in this weekend's Illinois state archery tournament, nine are from Champaign and Vermilion counties:
Next Generation School, Champaign
Schlarman Academy, Danville
Jefferson Middle School, Champaign
Mary Miller Junior High, Georgetown
Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School
Centennial High School, Champaign
Central High School, Champaign
Armstrong-Potomac Grade School
Armstrong-Potomac High School