The archery program at East Middle School hasn't always been the powerhouse that is now.
A program that has won five of the last six bulls-eye state tournaments and 8 of the 10 that have ever happened in South Dakota started with humble roots, and coach Teri Bauer at Dakota Middle School in 2007.
Bauer was one of the first group of physical education teachers trained by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks to teach archery in class. From there, GF&P decided to introduce state tournaments through the National Archery in Schools Program.
"When we started this the other P.E. teachers that were involved believed it was something the kids would enjoy. We always taught it in P.E., but when Game, Fish and Parks decided to do state tournaments we thought it’d be nice for kids to have a chance to go to a state tournament," she said. "We practiced, we coached them but we never thought it would go this far."
Dakota has since closed, and Bauer was the only physical education teacher from there that went to East. She brought the program with her, and said she's had fantastic support from the parents, teachers and administrators.
She also said it wouldn't be possible to have any program at East or Dakota without GF&P, which provided equipment for free when they were first starting out.
Archery can be an expensive sport, and she said it made all the difference. Now, the program at East Middle has 66-70 kids participating in it, and students look forward to participating even when they're in elementary school.
"The reason we’re so passionate about it is we want them to go to the next step. We want them to shoot league, we want them to get interested in hunting, especially for the girls, they eat this up, they love it," she said. "I have a lot of kids that come back and they’re hunting with their parents now or they are in league."
The program in South Dakota now has 300 schools participating, and even a blizzard the week before couldn't keep 480 kids from coming to Rapid City for the bulls-eye state tournament March 23.
East did what it usually does, and it won the state tournament.
"It's like any program," Bauer said. "Once you start and you have success and the kids buy into it, the program is going to successful."
Buy-in is one thing that hasn't been difficult to get from the students.
"A lot of kids like to do archery, and you bring them together as a team and you win," Emma Raisanen, and eighth grader who has been part of the program for three years, said. "It’s not just winning but it brings people in because they want to be part of the experience."
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The sport itself is also attractive to kids entering middle school because as Bauer said, it's a lifetime sport without gender barriers.
NASP archery doesn't have boys and girls divisions. Competitors are broken into groups by their grade, but the boys and girls compete against each other, and it's a sport that breaks some physical barriers as well.
In the case of eighth grader Reagan Davis, who has been in the program for three years, she had surgery during the season. She still wanted to shoot at state, and was able to do so.
"It’s a competitive sport but it’s not as physically involved as other sports. This season I had surgery so I couldn’t stand while shooting but they found a way for me at state to shoot on a chair," she said. "Still being able to do the sport I love with an injury is really nice."
Seventh grader Isabelle Raisanen, who has been in the program for two years, said the way the program at East is structured is what made it appealing to her.
"I like how it’s organized and how you can always get help when you need it. It’s a sport where you need to be confident, so it really helps you focus," she said. "Everyone helps out everyone."
The program has also grown state-wide to include 3-D shooting, where the state tournament has been in eastern South Dakota for the last five years.
This year the tournament was in Brookings, and it was a student from East who stole the show.
Kiyl’e Leichtnam-Skeen, an eighth grader who is in her third year of the program, didn't just place first in her division, but she beat everyone... even the high school competitors.
"It felt really great, I didn’t want to know my score because I wanted to keep it a surprise until it was over and done, but it felt really great," she said. "My parents pushed me to do sports. I tried this and loved it. I worked pretty hard and was also just a natural."
Bauer also talked about the confidence that can be instrumental to the development of the students as they navigate the difficult waters of middle school.
Seventh grader Olivia Mushitz, who has been part of the program for two years, said that even though the sport is difficult when someone is just starting out, seeing the improvement over time can help anyone's confidence.
"It starts out hard but it gets easier," she said. "I like how if you mess up there’s always a different way to fix it. If you mess up with your aim there’s a way to fix it."