The national archery competition in May was full of surprises.
For some Jefferson City area archers, the trip marked their first time competing on a national stage. Others built on the success of previous years and their school's storied archery programs. And others shot better than they ever had before.
Jefferson City teams and athletes competed May 12-14 in the Eastern tournament for the National Archery in the Schools Program in Louisville, Kentucky.
Students from Trinity Lutheran School, Immaculate Conception School, Calvary Lutheran High School, Blair Oaks, Capital City High School, Lewis and Clark Middle School, and Helias Catholic High School, among others, represented the Jefferson City area at the national competition.
Archery as a sport has broad appeal, partly because it's accessible for students who aren't necessarily athletically inclined.
"You don't have to be the fastest, you don't have to be the tallest ... you don't have to jump," said coach and parent Marty Masters, of Trinity Lutheran.
It's a "sport everyone can do. It doesn't matter how strong you are," said ninth-grader Brady Buechter, of Blair Oaks.
"I like archery because (it's) unlike other sports (in which) you have to run. I'm not a huge fan of running. And then I found archery, and then I decided to do it, mostly because it's not a running sport," said Marty's son, Hayden.
Emily Roberts, whose sixth-grade daughter, Ava, competed for Lewis and Clark Middle School, said it's a sport that goes beyond physical fitness. While it can be tough to draw a bow, especially for smaller children, it's primarily a mental game.
More than speed or strength or agility, archery is a game of focus, rhythm and resilience. Archers train themselves to tune out the noise and make each arrow count. When they miss the mark, the key is recovering and improving the next shot.
"To get better, you have to critique yourself, and that's something I do a lot, and the little details you have to focus on," said Allison Trinklein, a junior at Calvary Lutheran, who went to nationals for the first time this year.
For Natalie Sommerer, also a Calvary Lutheran junior, the joy of archery is watching her hard work pay off over time.
Some think archery lacks excitement, but Kyla Kempker, a fifth-grader at Immaculate Conception, disagrees.
"I know a lot of people think it's boring because all you do is stand out there with a bow and arrow, but I think it is a lot of fun, especially when you're going to nationals or world," she said.
"I think people would like it if they actually gave it a chance. Cause a lot of people say, 'Oh that looks boring, I don't want to even try,' but then it's actually really fun if you actually give it a chance," said her friend, Maddi Schnieders, also of Immaculate Conception.
Many students get their start in 4-H or bow hunting. Others head straight into NASP, which accepts archers as young as fourth grade.
Trinity Lutheran fifth-grader Corbyn Bess said he first became interested in archery at a pep rally in second grade. He said his parents went out and bought him a bow before he could even use it. Now, Corbyn said he won't put it down.
"I will shoot as long as I can," he said.
Jocelyn Scheppers, a senior at Calvary Lutheran who started in fifth grade, said she's seen growth in archery and herself.
"It's a growing sport and now a bunch more people are into it, so I meet lots of different people from lots of different schools and places, and it's just really fun making new friends," Scheppers said.
"I used to be super shy, and I wouldn't talk to a bunch of people, and now obviously I'm into making a bunch of different friends, so it really just helps you get out there," she said.
Archery is now popular enough in Missouri that it could soon be designated Missouri's official state sport if the governor signs a bill on his desk.
Like any sport, archery has its fans -- and its superfans.
"When you're in the sport, people go crazy for it," said senior Molly Wolken, of Calvary Lutheran. At the national competition, she saw parents clad in "archery mom" shirts bring binoculars to watch their children shoot.
Parents and students alike appreciate the "community" that archery seems to invoke.
"I love the atmosphere of the sport and going to nationals with a team that, these kids are so tight-knit and so close, especially with the coaches," said Becky Allmeroth, whose son Jack is a junior at Blair Oaks. "These are wonderful coaches that have supported my son and taught him things beyond just archery, taught him just mental toughness."
Becky Buechter, whose son, Brady, is a freshman at Blair Oaks, calls it their "archery family."
"It's just a sport where everybody supports each other," she said.
Kyla Kempker and Maddi Schnieders said they became friends through archery. They had never talked to each other much before meeting on the team, and now they've competed at state and nationals together.
Emily Roberts said she and Ava saw children from other area teams at lots of tournaments throughout the year, and it fosters relationships and connections across schools. At the national competition, many parents and students said each Jefferson City team was cheering for the other, setting aside their status as opponents.
JJ Quehl, a senior at Blair Oaks, said he enjoys meeting and making friends from across state lines at the national competition as well.
Since archery is open to students from fourth grade all the way to 12th, older students can inspire up-and-coming archers.
Quehl earned first at the Eastern national tournament.
And at the Centershot Bullseye tournament, an open tournament taking place simultaneously, Quehl did the almost unthinkable -- he shot a perfect 300.
It wasn't his first perfect score, but it was no less sweet of an accomplishment.
As he got closer and closer, Quehl said it was nerve-wracking, and when he sunk his final arrow, he thought, "Holy crap, I did it again."
JJ's success is well-known to other Jefferson City archers, and to younger students, it's an inspiration.
"Another thing that I realized was at state, a girl got a 278 and she got a scholarship. She's in high school. That is my high now, so imagine how I'll be in high school," Kyla said. She gestured to her friend Maddi. "She got a 282, imagine how she will be in high school."
After a pause, Kyla said, "We could be JJ."
"That's my goal," Maddi replied.
While nationals is serious competition, the trip has plenty of fun packed in, too.
Jack Allmeroth and other Blair Oaks students paid a visit to the Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby. Allmeroth said he saw lots of fancy hats, alongside plenty of "regular Kentucky people."
Jim Brentlinger and his son, Sam, went to the Louisville Slugger Museum. The Brentlingers also took advantage of the vendors at the tournament facility to purchase a new bow and new arrows, customized in Blair Oaks colors for Sam's birthday. Jocelyn Scheppers and her dad, who she calls a second coach, went to the Louisville Zoo and the Bowling Green Corvette Museum. The Roberts family explored a nearby national park. Corbyn Bess focused on his shooting first, but afterward got ice cream and met JJ Quehl and watched him shoot.
Some just enjoyed the perks of travel, swimming in the hotel pool, ordering in pizza, and eating out at new restaurants.
When it came to the shooting, lots of Jefferson City students surprised themselves at nationals.
Molly Wolken calls archery a "mind sport," which she compares to yoga. She said she has to calm herself down and hype herself up, but the mental gymnastics come instinctively.
"People watch me, and they're like, 'Why do you breathe like that?' and I'm like, 'I don't know, man. It just happens.' My breathing completely changes when I'm on the line, it's so different. But yeah, I've always been able to zone in and really get in the zone," Wolken said.
"Sometimes I'll shoot, and I don't even remember what happened," she added.
As she neared the end of her shots at the national tournament, she said she felt the pressure.
At those high levels, "every little point, you're scrapping for it," she said.
Usually cool under pressure, Wolken said she was nervous. She tried to crack jokes to maintain her calm.
As she tallied up her score, she was shocked.
295. She'd never shot a 295.
It was enough to secure the top spot for high school girls.
For other athletes, the whole experience was completely new.
Twin seventh-graders Natalie and Sophia Miner, of Trinity Lutheran, said the setting for the national tournament evoked a little fear.
"I was a bit intimidated by the size of the building. That thing was huge. They could have shot all of the Fast and Furious movies at once in that building, it was so big," Sophia said.
In the huge room, filled with more targets than at any tournament before, Natalie said it was "mesmerizing" to watch everyone shoot and listen to the "satisfying" sound of the arrows thudding into the targets.
Once the shooting began, both fell into the familiar rhythm of a normal tournament.
"I am here, I am shooting, I am at Nationals, this is going to be great," Sophia thought.
Sam Brentlinger, a freshman at Blair Oaks, rose to the challenge this year.
"Sam's new this year, so earlier this season at practice, we weren't even going to go to state. And he started shooting really good, and the coaches were like, 'You're going to state, right?' And I'm like, 'Well, I guess we can. There's no reason not to, we just didn't think he'd be ready yet,'" said his dad, Jim. "And he was shooting really good, and he shot a personal best at state in Branson, 289 points, which put him automatically at a level to then go to nationals."
Sam had shot in 4-H for years, but when he was in middle school, archery wasn't yet available at the school, so this was his first year with the team.
"And then Blair Oaks was lucky enough to be able to, the team, to place third in the nation in a program that's only been in existence for six years," Jim Brentlinger said.
To view tournament results, visit https://nasptournaments.org/Tournament Detail.aspx?tid=7696.