Dan Kempenich knew his team was good and getting better — the athletes had set team records just about every time they had competed — but he never expected a national championship.
The archery program at Lakes International Language Academy (LILA), a 20-year-old language-immersion charter school in Forest Lake, took first place at the NASP Western Nationals archery tournament in Salt Lake City on April 28 and 29.
The program, with more than 60 participants in grades six through 12, is part of the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), a nationwide initiative to encourage archery. More than 8,000 archers took part in the tournament.
LILA participates in MSHSL-sanctioned sports such as volleyball, soccer, basketball, baseball and softball, often as part of a cooperative, but the archery program has become a special source of pride. LILA, which has an enrollment of about 1,400 in kindergarten through 12th grade, won the state NASP tournament each of the past two years.
Teams compete in two disciplines, Bullseye and 3D. Bullseye challenges competitors to place arrows as close to the 10-point bull's-eye as possible. Each gets one practice arrow and five attempts per round, for six rounds. As many as 24 shooters are allowed per team, but only the scores of the top 12 are counted.
The 3D competition uses paper cutouts of wild animals as targets. A cutout of a turkey is at a 10-meter distance, a stone sheep at 15 meters, a coyote, bear, pronghorn antelope and deer at various other distances.
Led by junior Jameson Rydeen, the Dragons won both competitions, becoming the first team from Minnesota to win at the NASP Western Nationals.
Kempenich said he never dreamed the Dragons would come home as champions.
"It's a long season. We start practicing in November and have competitions every weekend starting in January," he said. "With practice three nights a week, that's shooting four times a week. Kids were getting pretty casual in their approach, and there was growing disinterest. I never thought we'd win."
But Kempenich had been encouraged all season by the Dragons' focus during competitions, and they posted their best score of the season, 1,703, in winning the 3D championship in Salt Lake City.
"That was at 9 a.m. Then I told them to go, get out of here and forget about things for a while," he said. "They didn't have Bullseye until 2 o'clock that day. We didn't want them laying around on the hard cement floors, waiting."
When competition resumed, the Dragons were relaxed and ready, posting a winning score of 3,357 in the Bullseye discipline. Rydeen won the individual portion with a score of 296 out of 300, topping 344 other competitors. Rydeen also won the individual 3D title, beating 236 other competitors.
"He's just so calm going about his business," Kempenich said. "Nothing flusters him."
Teammates Jacob Leach and Ethan Stemper added top-10 finishes in each category to help the Dragons to the championship.
When it was over, the traveling party — the team, the coaches and family members, a group Kempenich estimated to be nearly 100 persons — celebrated at their hotel with a pool party and barbeque.
"It cost around $10,000 for the trip, but it was worth it," Kempenich said.