By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
CLINTON — So how do you get from Clinton, Mo., to Lousiville, Ky.? Practice, practice, practice.
For the second year in a row and in just their third year of competition, the Holy Rosary School archery team punched its ticket to the May 11-12 national finals in Louisville.
Out of some 60 Missouri middle school teams, Holy Rosary’s archers rolled up a score of 3,136 at the March 24 Missouri National Archery in Schools Program (MoNASP) to finish second in the state.
Now get this: Holy Rosary has an enrollment of 129. Just 19 of them are in the seventh and eighth grade.
The state champion middle school archery team? That was Ridgewood Middle School in the Fox C-6 School District near St. Louis. Ridgewood has an enrollment of 446, just in the seventh and eighth grades.
It didn’t bother the Holy Rosary team to compete against schools 20 times their size. Bring ‘em on. No complaints, no excuses.
In fact, Holy Rosary’s principal Doug McMillan said that throwing all schools, public and private, of all sizes into a single contest was a “true state competition.”
“All schools compete against each other,” he said. “There are are not different classes by size of school as there are for other school sports in Missouri.”
Here is how the competition works.
Each team consists of at least 16 and no more than 24 archers. (In its first state competition in 2010, Holy Rosary failed to qualify for nationals because it didn’t have 16 archers, even though individual archers took home a case full of trophies.)
Each archer shoots six sets of five arrows each at a tournament-regulated target, a “bullseye” worth 10 points, with decreasing points for target hits outside the bullseye. Thus, a perfect score for an individual would be 300.
The official team score is the sum of the 12 top individual scores. That means that Holy Rosary’s score of 3,136 was just 464 points off perfect in 360 shots at the target.
And as the day rolled on, it got exciting.
The Missouri competition was held at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. Because of Clinton’s proximity, the Holy Rosary team shot first in the 10 a.m. group. The team score held first place all day until Ridgewood, travelling across the state and shooting in the final round late in the afternoon, barely nosed Holy Rosary out of the state title.
Disappointed? No way, said Holy Rosary coach and physical education teacher Marnie Bellamy.
“They all did great,” she said. “We had some people who did the best they ever did.”
And that is the value of archery in the schools, a curriculum that began in Kentucky just a decade ago and has spread to nearly 10,000 middle and high schools with millions of kids participating.
Bellamy said archery is one of those sports, like swimming, cross country and track and field, where the most important thing is to set and beat individual goals. Winning, she said, becomes a by-product.
“If you shoot a 270 today, your goal it to shoot one arrow better tomorrow,” Bellamy said.
That also means that your opponent isn’t the guy from the other school, said Holy Rosary volunteer assistant coach Cole Duensing. Your “opponent” is yourself.
“So much of archery is discipline,” said Duensing, a college sophomore, avid archer and a Holy Rosary product who graduated before archery was introduced at the school.
“It looks simple. You get an arrow in the center of the target,” he said. “But you really have to work at it to get good.”
Bellamy said that is the beauty of the sport and why it is valuable to introduce it to middle school-aged students at exactly the time when they are rapidly growing and may feel awkward.
In order to even hit the target, let alone the bullseye, an archer has to control his or her entire body. They have to stand perfectly still, pull back a bowstring that requires 20 pounds of muscle force with just two fingers, concentrate and focus on the target, then release the arrow.
“When they learn to do that, and to come back and anchor in the same spot every time, they don’t realize that they can have that much control of their bodies,” she said.
Besides, it’s fun. Just ask the Holy Rosary team members.
“I like the competition, the teamwork and meeting kids from other schools,” Clay Huey said. “You are fighting against yourself to stay calm and not get nervous.”
“It’s not as hard as you think,” said Sebastian McMillan, the principal’s son. “It’s all about repetition.”
Riley Pereles said he accomplished a personal goal at state. His score of 259 beat his twin sister Tessa by two points.
“I did better than her, I know that,” he said as he got a poke in the arm.
But not as well as the school’s top archer, Ben Bellamy, the coach’s son who shot 278 out of 300. And, of course, that is no longer good enough.
“My personal goal for the nationals is to shoot in the 280s or 290s,” he said. “The team goal is to do the best we can.”
Archery was an easy sell for McMillan and even the parents of Holy Rosary, Marnie Bellamy said.
Located near Truman Lake, the great outdoors is a way of life, where entire families go hunting, fishing and camping together.
“It’s in the fabric of the community,” Bellamy said. “Everyone hunts here and archery didn’t phase anybody.”
Holy Rosary also inspired another Catholic school where hunting might not be in the fabric of community.
Two years ago, the parents of Jenifer Valenti showed her a newspaper story about Holy Rosary’s success and suggested it might be a good program for Our Lady of the Presentation School in Lee’s Summit, where Valenti’s children are enrolled.
Valenti admitted that she asked the first question everybody asks about archery in the schools: Is it safe?
“I reached out to Marnie Bellamy, and I was totally inspired by her and the Holy Rosary team,” Valenti said.
Valenti said that Bellamy was not only willing to help Presentation establish an archery program. She was anxious to.
“Marnie calmed my fears about safety, and helped develop my admiration and excitement about the sport,” Valenti said.
Valenti then lined up funding and parent volunteers. Then she broached the subject to Presentation principal Jodi Briggs.
“She may have been thinking, ‘Are you people crazy?’” Valenti said.
Not quite, said Briggs.
Briggs said she contacted McMillan and Bellamy who explained to her that under proper adult supervision, proper precautions, and with a proper place to practice, archery is perfectly safe. After all, a bow and arrow can’t go off accidentally.
“Holy Rosary was instrumental in providing answers to questions, leading us in the direction we needed to go, and truly assured me that archery is safe — and it is,” Briggs said.
Valenti intended to take full parent leadership responsibilities for the archery team last summer, but God and Bishop Robert W. Finn had other plans.
In June, Valenti a former assistant prosecuting attorney, was named diocesan ombudsman with the responsibility for receiving and investigating complaints of sexual misconduct by any diocesan employee, including priests.
“Jenifer Valenti became a little less focused on archery and a little more focused on other targeting skills,” Valenti said.
Up stepped Presentation parent Clint Rogers, as well as other parents who took eight hours of training for certification to coach.
So how did Presentation do?
“We did not make it in the top five, nor did we have any kids in the top five percent to qualify for nationals,” Rogers said. “But our kids did great for our rookie season and we will be better with each passing year.”
And that is what archery in the schools is all about, said Duensing, the Holy Rosary assistant — getting better while passing the fun and discipline of competition as well as the sport itself to a new generation.
“This is the future of the sport,” Duensing said as he watched the Holy Rosary students practice in their new gym. “We need kids starting now so they can carry on the traditions of the sport.”
Valenti said that the help the small town Catholic school gave to the big suburban Catholic school underscored Catholic education.
“One thing that never ceases to amaze me about Catholic schools is how, although we may be far apart, we are all so close,” she said. “Knowing that another school who shares our values and traditions can find success in something inspires us all to think we may be able to do the same.”
Before every meet, the Holy Rosary team gathers to say this prayer from the book, “We Believe and Pray: Prayers and Practices for Young Catholics”:
“God, please be with me and my teammates as we prepare for our game.
“Help us to do our best, and to remember the skills we have practiced.
“Help us to work together to achieve our goal, whether we win or lose.
“God, be with our opponents also. They too have worked hard.
“Help us to remember to be good teammates and competitors, and keep us safe as we play. Amen.”
The parents of the Holy Rosary archery team members are expected to pay all the expenses of the trip to the national finals in Louisville. Donations to help defray those expenses can be made and sent to Holy Rosary School, 400 E. Wilson St., Clinton, MO 64735-2262, with the notation, “Archery team.”