Archery in schools program hits its mark in Minnesota
The indoor-archery program builds confidence, skills and interest in the outdoors.
DULUTH — Tanner Cismowski seemed small compared to some of the older kids he was lined up with last weekend at the Minnesota Archery in the Schools state tournament, but that didn't seem to bother him.
On the firing line on the ice-free floor at Amsoil Arena, with dozens of other archers from across the state and with hundreds of people watching from the stands, the fifth grader from Mesabi East prepared to draw back his bow aiming at a 3D target in the shape of a wild turkey.
Dead silence filled the arena until a referee's whistle sounded and arrows started flying toward targets.
Thwap. Cismowksi’s first arrow hit dead-center. Thwap. Another just missed the center zone. Thwap. Another one close to the high-score area.
It’s the kind of accuracy that won Cismowski, now 10, a trip to nationals last year as a fourth grader — his first year ever shooting a bow.
“It’s fun,” Cismowski said. “I like it because you get to go around to different places” to compete.
Cismowski was one of 1,900 archers from 46 schools competing at the National Archery in the Schools Minnesota state tournament. Archers also filled the floors in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Arena and Pioneer Hall, with categories for both 3D and traditional bull’s-eye targets. The very best teams and individuals advanced to a western U.S. tournament in Utah in May. There's a national tournament in South Carolina in June.
While COVID-19 halted the indoor archery program back in 2020, it’s now recovering to near pre-pandemic levels, said Dennis Hanson, a volunteer coach for the Grand Rapids team. Like many other coaches, Hanson initially got involved when his children were in the archery program. But he has continued to volunteer after they graduated.
The Grand Rapids club program started with just 14 students 20 years ago, peaked at more than 200 before the pandemic, and now has 73 competitors.
While the Archery in the Schools classroom program is run as part of the regular school curriculum, the competitive teams are not part of a school-sanctioned varsity sport. Grand Rapids’ team is run through the Community Education Program and depends on volunteers and financial sponsors to keep it going.
“We end up with a lot of kids who maybe wouldn’t play a sport like baseball or basketball, but who really enjoy competing in archery,” Hanson said. “That’s the great thing about this. Anyone can do it. And if you have patience and are willing to practice, some of these kids get really good at it.”
“It’s a very inclusive team,” Hanson added. “It’s like a big family.”
Generally absent from the competition is much school-against-school rivalry. In archery, you're mostly competing against yourself, trying to improve your own score, and most competitors are very cordial.
Girls compete on the firing line with boys, high schoolers next to middle-schoolers, able-bodied archers next to others in wheelchairs or who might need special gear, like one archer who released their arrow using their mouth.
“Everybody on the teams are really friendly. You get to know other people when you go to their schools for tournaments. There’s a connection between the teams,” said Evangeline Johnson, a 10th grader at Mountain Iron-Buhl.
Johnson has been on the competitive archery team for five years.
“It’s really an amazing experience when I get up there to shoot. It’s not just shooting a bow. ... It’s more like an art,” she added. “You learn how to make it flow. To forget about everything else. It’s so calming. You breathe and get into the mindset where all I see is the target … you put everything else out of your mind.”
This season, Johnson said she’s been struggling with consistency in her release point — that sweet-spot on her face where she pulls her bowstring back to before letting-loose the arrow. But she’s working on it, still having fun, still trying to get better, still interacting with kids on her team and others.
She says she plans to stay with archery through high school and beyond. “Maybe coach after college,” she noted.
Xander Little was easy to spot even among the 60 or so archers on the firing line; he was the only one wearing a traditional felt hat, much like the one worn by famed archer Fred Bear. (He didn’t know who Fred Bear was.) Little attends Rock Ridge Public Schools, but competes with the Mountain Iron-Buhl archery team because Rock Ridge doesn’t yet offer archery.
Little was cool, calm and collected on the firing line as he worked his way through the various 3D targets — a deer, antelope, bear, mountain sheep, turkey and coyote — but said he does better with the traditional, circular bull’s-eye targets.
“I think I did OK,” Little said as he grabbed his bow off a rack to head on to the next competition.
His mom, Abby Hejda, was watching from the arena’s seats. She kept a close eye on his accuracy by zooming in on each target using the video of her smartphone camera.
“He’s very much an individual sport kind of kid,” Hejda said. “That’s why archery is perfect for him. He loves it.”
The goal: Kids in archery will also get outdoors
The archery season generally starts in December, roughly following the traditional winter sports schedules in schools. Local and regional tournaments are held across the state on weekends from January into March, with the state tournament held at the end of March each year.
The 1,900 archers competing this year in Duluth was up from just 57 participants in all grade levels in the initial state tournament 20 years ago.
“It’s phenomenal how archery has taken off, how many kids are interested when you give them the chance,” said Kraig Kiger, a volunteer for the Grand Rapids team and also the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ shooting sports coordinator. “Just when I think we’ve reached a plateau, this year we added 20 new teams in Minnesota.”
Joseph Bissonette, a coach for the Mountain Iron-Buhl team, said he’s seeing more connection between the archery program and kids wanting to try hunting.
“Now I see girls in the program going hunting with their dads,” he said. “That’s exactly what we need.”
As part of the national effort, Archery in the Schools is a collaborative undertaking between the state DNR and local schools to establish two-week archery units in gym classes. The Olympic-style target archery program has a core content that covers archery history, safety, technique, equipment, mental concentration and self improvement. Before teaching the course, instructors must undergo the National Archery Association Level 1 archery training program and be certified instructors.
Getting more kids engaged, involved
Boys and girls in grades 4-12 compete for individual and team archery honors, with elementary, middle school and senior high divisions. A team consists of as many as 24 participants. For scoring purposes, the top four boys, top four girls and top four of either gender are used for the team aggregate. A school may have multiple teams competing in the same division.
Much like the hugely popular high school trap shooting leagues, which now have more participants in Minnesota than high school football or any other sport statewide, the archery program is getting kids interested in a lifetime endeavor while teaching skills like practice, patience, concentration, commitment and teamwork. (The program also stresses academics, with $25,000 in scholarships awarded at last weekend's event.)
We don’t push bowhunting during this. But you can see the progression. It gets them interested.
The traditional bull’s-eye targets are at distances of 10 and 15 meters, while the 3D animal targets range from 10-15 meters away. The 3D targets add a slightly different skill set. But it’s also hoped that it might generate enthusiasm among the archers for bowhunting.
“That’s our hope, that they see how well they can do here and that sparks an interest to take it outdoors and become a bowhunter,” Kiger said. “We don’t push bowhunting during this. But you can see the progression. It gets them interested.”
Nationally, officials in the program say they can take some credit for the number of bowhunters across the country increasing from about 7 million in 2002 to more than 23 million last year.
In that light, in an effort to keep younger people interested in the outdoors and natural resources, the DNR offers technical and financial help for any school that wants to start an archery program.
18 million students have now shot a bow
Since its inception in 2002, the National Archery in the Schools program has put bows in the hands of more than 18 million students across the country. Two-thirds of them had never held a bow before. Half are female.
Some 58% of the participants polled say they feel more connected with their school thanks to the program and 40% say they're doing better in the classroom. Perhaps the best result: Some 91% say they are now pursuing additional outdoors activities thanks to the archery program.
The base of the program is getting archery into the regular school curriculum, usually as a physical education requirement, stressing safety and participation over competition. But those who like what they try can stay involved. Of the 1.3 million participants in schools last year 76,429 students from 1,053 schools in 42 states competed in local, regional and eventually national tournaments.
In Duluth, Holy Rosary, Lakeview Christian Academy, Marshall School, St. James Catholic School and Stowe Elementary have Archery in the Schools programs. Ely, Greenway, Hill City, Northwoods, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Cherry, Mountain Iron-Buhl, Grand Rapids and Mesabi East are among other schools in the region with competitive teams.
Top individual scores at Minnesota state tournament
Jameson Rydeen of Lakes International Language Academy in Forest Lake took top honors among all archers in the 3D target category with a score of 296 out of a possible 300. Lydia Feldhahn of St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Stillwater scored 293 out of 300 for second place. Shay Busch of Mountain Iron-Buhl was the top Northland 3D archer with a score of 286.
Rydeen also placed first in the bull’s-eye category with a score of 295 out of 300. Merissa Whitcomb of Princeton High School took second with a score of 294 and Feldhahn took third with a score of 293. Kaitlyn Olson of Grand Rapids High School was the top Northland bull’s-eye archer with a score of 289.
Top teams at the Minnesota state tournament
Lakes International Language Academy won the team competition in 3D targets with a score of 1,707, while Princeton was second at 1,697 and Zimmerman third at 1,695. Greenway in Coleraine was the top Northland team, in ninth place, with a score of 1,589.
Open World Learning Community in St. Paul won first place in the traditional bull’s-eye target category with a score of 3,383, while Lakes International Language Academy took second with 3,351 points, tied with Princeton with the same score. Grand Rapids was the top Northland team, finishing in fifth place with 3,316 points.
Wisconsin state tournament
The Wisconsin state tournament was also held last weekend in Wisconsin Dells, with the Superior High School and middle school teams finishing in 19th place each in the bull’s-eye category and Superior High School finishing in ninth place in 3D targets.
For more information about the Archery in the Schools Program, go to nasparchery.com .
In Minnesota, Wisconsin
For Archery in the Schools programs, the Minnesota DNR offers complete gear packages that include right- and left-handed bows, targets, arrows and more. The DNR will periodically provide financial assistance to schools or nonprofit organizations providing equipment to schools through a competitive program. Schools will be required to provide $1,800, and the DNR will fund the rest.
Contact Kraig Kiger, Minnesota DNR Shooting Sports Programs, at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to dnr.state.mn.us/grants/epr/archery/index.html for more information.
In Wisconsin, go to dnr.wisconsin.gov/Education/OutdoorSkills/NASP .