"You have to stand behind this line," warns a man with a whistle.
At the tweet of his whistle, a volley of arrows flies across the Ridgeway Community School (RCS) gym and sink into targets on the other side—or at least most of them do.
"I got a bull's eye on your target!" student participant Blake Doyscher laughs.
"That still counts as zero," his friend Jacob Mahon teases.
Students from RCS and Winona Middle School (WMS) are competing in a virtual archery meet; their scores will be entered online and pitted against young archers from distant schools. Feedback is not quite as immediate as an in-person meet—students may not know the results for a couple days.
"All I care about is beating him," Mahon says pointing to his friend Doyscher.
Still, students think the archery club, which has given them the chance to shoot, learn bowmanship skills, and participate in meets like this, is "pretty cool," or as one student put it, "Fine. But I am a teenager so that probably means 'good.'"
RCS and WMS are partnering to provide archery in physical education classes at the schools and at after-school events like last week's virtual meet. The WMS and RCS archery club is part of the National Archery in Schools Program (NASP), a joint project by state education and natural resources departments across the country, with the dual goals of interesting more kids in archery and bowhunting and getting kids involved in a school activity.
"It is a fantastic thing for all the kids," said the archery club supervisor, Al Joswick. "The great thing is you do not have to be an athlete to participate. Archery is for everybody."
Joswick is right; you do not need to lift weights to pull back the string of the club's bows, and there is no running allowed. However, the sport requires technique and practice. He and RCS Coordinator Jodi Dansingburg agreed that the program has attracted kids who are not in any other sports or activities, and that makes those students more likely to succeed.
According to the NASP, 88 percent of students who drop out of school do not participate in any extracurricular activities.
"This is my favorite part of school," said one student at the meet.
RCS received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for half of the cost of the program's bows, arrows, targets, and arrow-catching net. The other half was donated by the Bluff Country Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Winona Masonic Lodge No. 18, Easton Sports Development Foundation, and the Minnesota Masonic Charities.
About 40 students from WMS and RCS participate in the program, the first few weeks of which are focused on safety, Joswick said.
"I felt safe here," student participant Courtney Schames said. "Half the time, you talk safety, and I thought, 'Let's just shoot.' But at the same time it is good."
A number of area schools have NASP programs, including Rushford and Lewiston. Dansingburg said RCS and WMS hope to travel to meets next year.