A little over six years ago, Joesph Bonanno came home and told his father he was interested in joining an archery program at school.
Joseph was a fourth-grader.
The Bonanno family had never hunted or shown an interest in guns, much less compound bows. That was the fall of 2010 and by Christmastime, Eric bought his son Joseph his first bow.
Now a sophomore at Central Magnet School, Joseph is one of dozens of members of the middle and high school archery teams that each have a pair of state championships in the four years since the school added archery. Eric — a science teacher at Central — is also now the head coach of the middle and high school archery program at the school.
The Central high school program recently won back-to-back titles, while the middle school program was a mere 14 points shy of winning its third consecutive title.
“I knew we could produce a great score,” Eric said.
Archery has become the fastest growing sport in Rutherford County.
The elder Bonanno credits the School Resource Officers in Rutherford County, who took it upon themselves to bring the “National Archery in the Schools Program” to area elementary schools 11 years ago.
Sponsored by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee began NASP in 2004 with 12 pilot schools participating. Today more than 290 schools in Tennessee, including two-thirds of the schools in Rutherford County, participate.
NASP is a joint venture between the state departments of education and wildlife.
The focus is to provide International Style Target Archery training in physical education classes. The SRO’s initially introduced the program to fourth- and fifth-graders in Rutherford County.
“Middle schools didn’t have it,” Bonanno said, “and the parents started going to the principals and saying, ‘Hey, we want an archery program.’”
Now all but LaVergne and Rock Springs middle schools have a competitive archery. Rocky Fork Middle School will also field a team when the school opens in August, school principal Dr. Jimmy Sullivan confirmed.
Sullivan hired Rachel Jernigan, who is one of two archery coaches at Christiana Middle, and she will serve as a part-time coach at Rocky Fork.
Stewarts Creek Middle recently won the Tennessee state title by a narrow 13-point margin over Central’s middle school team. Six of the nine middle school teams from Rutherford County finished in the Top 10.
Unlike high school sports that traditionally have to work to develop younger athletes to feed the program, the archery programs in Rutherford County “went the other way,” Bonanno said. The younger players were introduced to the sport and now there are seniors competing with nine years of experience.
At the high school level, Siegel was among the first to sport an archery team followed by Central and Oakland. Riverdale, Eagleville and Stewarts Creek have programs and Blackman High School is in its first year.
Six of the teams dominated at the state high school tournament, which was held in Murfreesboro at the Tennessee Miller Coliseum, where more than 2,000 student-archers from Tennessee competed.
“At competitions it becomes serious and quiet,” Central’s Alison Blanton said, “and it’s all about what’s going on in my head.”
Blanton’s teammate Kaylie Corban said, “I’m a very wild person most of the time and archery is very calming. You have to focus. It’s a good way not just to train myself to shoot, but to train myself to work.”
Blanton and Corban will be among numerous archers from Tennessee competing at the national tournament May 11-13 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Several archers from Rutherford County Schools have been offered college scholarships.
A trio of high school students from Central — Blanton, Corban and Chase Wyatt — have been offered $20,000 scholarships from Bethel University for placing among the top five of male and female archers at the Tennessee State High School Championships.
Blanton shot a 297 out of 300 and was the top scorer — boys and girls combined – in the state.
Oakland’s Clay Sizemore has received four scholarship options.
Bethel, University of the Cumberlands and Kentucky Christian University all offered the senior a chance to shoot in college. He received a fourth option last week from Cumberland University.
Sizemore and Blanton both have their sights set on attending and competing for the nearby Lebanon school, which is starting a new program.
“I never thought I’d get a scholarship to shoot archery,” said Sizemore, who competes in the Olympic Recurve event.
Sizemore finished third in the nation at the Indoor National Scholastic 3D Archery tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio. He had previously won three different state level titles over an eight-day period to qualify for the national tournament.
“If we had one Rutherford County team,” Sizemore said of the dominating talent found in Rutherford County, “we would be a force to be reckoned with nationwide. If we took an all-star (county) team (to the national tournament), we could be a national powerhouse.”
A record-setting number of archers are expected to compete at the national tournament.
Organizers are expecting more than 14,000 entries, which would be an increase of 9 percent over last year’s record of 12,897 student archers representing 950 schools from 42 states.
In Tennessee, Rutherford County dominates the statewide program with the majority of those participating coming from Middle and East Tennessee.
Jeri Carmichael, one of three coaches at Whitworth-Buchanan Middle School, received School Board approval to begin the fundraising process in an effort to build an archery-only facility on county land adjacent to school.
The facility would be for the entire county.
There are currently 11 elementary schools along with 13 middle schools and seven high schools in Rutherford County with archery programs.
“I don’t know what got it started,” said Blanton, who shot for the first time at a Girl Scout event. “It just caught on. Even in my own family you can see that I started doing it and now all of sudden we own nine bows.
“That’s what archery is, as long as you’ve got 10 meters and a target you can do it,” concluded Corban.