Carrithers Middle School Archery Team Reaches Nationals

If you’ve spent any time with middle schoolers, you know how difficult it is to get them to be quiet. You can imagine, then, how strange it would be to see 300 students standing stock still and silent with nocked arrows ready to fly, their bowstrings drawn back tightly. Can you hear the whoosh of hundreds of arrow shafts whizzing by, followed by the thunderous thunk of arrowheads meeting the targets? It is a wondrous sight.

At the end of March, Louisville hosted the 2018 National Archery in Schools Program’s (NASP) state tournament, where thousands of elementary, middle and high school students competed. The city also hosted nationals in May and the world tournament recently in June.

Carrithers Middle School in Jeffersontown has had an extracurricular archery program for a number of years, but the team has really come into its own in 2018. It was the top JCPS archery team to go to state and did well enough there to move on to nationals (28th out of 119 teams). Prior to the state tournament, Jeffersontown Mayor Bill Dieruf visited the team to wish students well in the competition and learn a bit about the sport.

Ben Blatz, a teacher at Carrithers, had never shot an arrow in his life prior to becoming the archery class instructor, a course that students may take as an elective. He took the NASP training, and when students asked to start competing, he worked to make it happen. He continues to teach the class, which he says is how he gets his new recruits for the team. Blatz endeavored to learn everything he could from other archery coaches, listening closely to conversations to pick up whatever tips and strategies he could to help his students. When the team began competing five years ago, it consisted of nine students. This year’s team has 43 students.

He shares coaching duties with four other individuals: Ken House, a Carrithers teacher and parent of an archer, Jim Anderson, who is also a Carrithers teacher and Daniel Woosley, the grandparent of a team member who is affectionately known as Pap. Having more coaches has meant more students can participate on the team. Blatz says Scott King of King’s Archery Outfitters has been a huge influence and help to both him and the students.

The team practices in the Carrithers cafeteria after school three days a week. When Blatz was coaching the girls’ basketball team, he would bounce between the gym and cafeteria to oversee practices. It says a lot about Blatz’s ability to modulate his energy level since these two sports are about as opposite as they can be in terms of intensity and animation. He compares archery to golf because both tend to be more sedate sports.

Blatz says mindset is critical in archery. Even though a student might get frustrated by a bad shot, he tells his players they have to let it go and not obsess over it.

“If you dwell on it, the focus and everything will go,” he says. He says 80 percent of the sport is mental and requires confidence. He has his students shoot thousands and thousands of arrows to build their muscle memory so that when they compete, their bodies just kind of take over.

When students compete, they get a practice round at 10 meters and then have three scoring rounds at 10 meters, which is followed by the same routine at 15 meters. A perfect score from six rounds is 300 points, meaning each shot is worth a possible 50 points. Blatz compares shooting a 50 to making five free throw shots in a row without missing. While it can be done, it’s tough.

At competitions, archers stand 30 inches apart, standing almost back-to-back, and usually, there are around 350 students in a line, all shooting at the same time. The two students, who cannot be from the same school, then score each others’ shots, which forces them to communicate with each other. Blatz says he has seen some of his more introverted students develop better social skills as a result of their archery participation.

Blatz says five or six of his students shot their personal bests at the state tournament, which he reminds them is the result of their hard work.

“It’s been a dream season,” he says. Team parents, like Tara Frederick, credit Blatz with helping the students reach their potential.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him,” she says. “It’s all about the kids, and he never wants to hear a thank you.”

Frederick says being part of the archery team has been a huge confidence builder for her daughter, Ashley. When “The Hunger Games” films came out, Ashley developed an interest in archery which her mother says was compounded by the enthusiasm that Blatz brings to coaching.

“This activity brought her out and gave her a place of belonging,” Frederick says.

Blatz would like to see additional schools develop archery programs. For his eighth graders, he says a point of contention for them was finding high schools that have archery programs so that they can continue competing. He would like for more elementary schools to develop archery programs, too, so that he has incoming middle schoolers who have a background knowledge of the sport.

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