CHAMPAIGN – Champaign Central senior EJ Merrifield hit the bull’s-eye. And hit the bull’s-eye. And hit the bull’s-eye.
Shooting 30 arrows, Merrifield failed to hit dead solid perfect just four times, recording the top score of 296 in the Illinois state archery tournament to help Central win the state championship last week weekend at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield.
Nearly 1,000 archers competed.
Champaign schools have turned into a hot spot of scholastic archery. Central topped the two-day event with a score of 3,387. Rival Centennial finished second with 3,364.
In the middle school division, Champaign Jefferson won the title again and Champaign Edison was third. Danville Northeast was second in the elementary school division, and while Next Generation School in Champaign was third.
Merrifield, who finished second in state as an eighth-grader and also won the title in the middle school division, credited hard work and coaching.
“I’ve had really good coaching,” Merrifield said. “I work hard at practice, and I make an effort with archery. The more pressure you put on yourself, the harder it becomes. It just took me a long time to get there. ”
Christine Creek, who coaches the team with husband Jay and Scott Sprague, said a cool demeanor is important in archery.
She said Merrifield employs some of the meditation techniques that Creek espouses to remain calm.
“He’s always been very good at focusing at one arrow at a time but maybe struggled to kind of keep it together as he went on in the tournament,” she said. “I think that’s improved over time as well, too.”
Creek said it’s not easy for youngsters to stay focused, even if they start out with perfect scores in the first round.
“The pressure sometimes comes from yourself,” she said. “You shoot five arrows in a row … and if you know they’re almost all dead center and you have one arrow left, you put that pressure on yourself to put that arrow in the center.”
Creek said Merrifield has been one of the team’s top shooters since he was a freshman “and has been just a dynamic shooter from the beginning.”
“Over the last couple of years, it’s been amazing to watch him develop into not just a very talented shooter but a mature teenager over time as well,” Creek said.
Merrifield said it took him “a long time” to get where he’s at.
“There are days when I start strong and I can just keep going, and there are days when I have a good start and get really excited and then focused,” he said, emphasizing the need to stay emotionally balanced.
Merrifield said consistency is the most important attribute, and every arrow needs to be shot the same way.
The senior would like to remain involved with the sport after graduation but doesn’t believe there are any college archery teams in Illinois.
“I would love to,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about coaching elsewhere.”
Merrifield said he keeps “bouncing back and forth between career ideas,” with writing and massage therapy among the vocations he is considering pursuing.
He credits the Creeks and Sprague for the squad’s success.
“Our whole team really appreciates our coaches,” Merrifield said. “They’re such wonderful people. They help not only with archery but also with everyday stuff. I know I can always go to them. ”
Creek said she and her husband will be stepping down as coaches after nine seasons. They went into coaching because their daughter loved archery at Jefferson Middle School, and Central didn’t have an archery program. So they got the OK to start one.
“Our first year, we had maybe 26 kids on the team,” Creek said. “This year, at our first practice, we had 106 archers.”
Top finishers at state qualified to compete at the US Eastern Nationals on May 12-14 in Louisville, Ky.
ANOTHER YEAR, ANOTHER JEFFERSON TITLE
The state championship achieved last weekend was the 10th in a row for Jefferson Middle School.
Coach Jason Brown said Jefferson fielded a team of 60 archers – down from pre-pandemic numbers of about 125.
Brown has been head coach for “five or six years.” Other Jefferson coaches are Lisa and Scott Madden and Kevin Merrifield.
“The coaches have set a standard,” Brown said. “Jefferson has had that standard from the get-go. From there we’ve just been lucky to get coaches throughout the years.
“A lot of those people who have gone on to coach at the two high schools and the other middle schools have been parents who have had kids on Jefferson teams. They’ve seen how it was done and moved it to their schools and emulated the same thing we do at Jefferson. ”
– Dave Hinton