When John Vines stepped into the role of coach for Saltillo’s archery program, he knew he’d be gaining a new set of challenges. His chief surprise, though, was discovering the new family that came along with them.
Saltillo’s archery program has not lost a meet or match of any kind in the past 10 years. Competing for honors with every 5A and 6A program in the state, it claimed its ninth consecutive state championship a few weeks ago. With nearly 50 members on the team, 24 of whom shoot for scores in competitive state meets, the top 12 of which count toward the combined team result, the team’s chief competition is typically found within itself. It’s an environment that could breed animosity through envy. Instead, it’s created a set of family ties that will bind its members to one another for all their years to come.
Saltillo’s program was founded by Mark Davidson, who laid the groundwork for the consistent excellence the team has achieved. His work was carried on by Jeff Cates, who left Saltillo recently for an administrative job elsewhere and passed the reins to Vines, for whom competitive archery of any sort was a brand new experience, let alone coaching it.
“I was really green and didn’t know much about the sport at all,” Vines said. “This team taught me everything I know about the sport. It was a huge learning curve for me and I really appreciate the patience they’ve had with me.”
It’s a challenge to which he has risen well. The team’s combined score of 3393, posted in the most recent state championship meet to claim their ninth consecutive title, is the highest Saltillo has ever achieved in state competition. Contributing to that, Zoie Tharp, a sophomore, shot a 296 in the state meet, which tied the state record for high score.
“Coach Cates was a good coach, but Coach Vines has really helped the team grow,” Emma Morrison, one of this past year’s three seniors, said. “The 3393 happened because of Coach Vines’s hands-on approach. Our program is like a family within the school, an extension of our own families at home, and we’ve really grown more this year than we ever have in the past.”
“I did have a good bit of help from Mark Davidson,” Vines said. “He helped out quite a bit with coaching mechanics. He’s a marksman and competitive archer, and he came in with a machine mentality that helped guide some of the focus. He was really instrumental in us being able to perform at the level at which we performed.”
Morrison has been shooting seven years recreationally and four years competitively.
“Archery, for me, is a way to relax and unwind,” she said. “When I’ve had a really stressful day, I come to the gym and shoot. Ev en when the season is over, Coach Vines has the gym open so we can come up here and shoot. It’s definitely something I’ll continue to do recreationally.”
Morrison plans to attend Mississippi University for Women this fall, where she’s already made inroads toward founding an archery program.
“I love that, every year, we have a team that’s as close as a family,” Tharp said. “We get together and act like siblings, and I like that there’s a competitive factor between us, but that we always build each other up and support each other. Our coaches have always supported us, and I love how much support we get all the way around and how close we all are. I’m definitely looking forward to doing it again next year.”
Archery programs have boomed statewide in the past several years. Operated by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the Archery in Mississippi Schools program is open to students in grades 4 through 12. It has grown to include 80,000 competitors statewide. An alternative to traditional field sports, scholastic archery offers an accessibility other sports generally do not.
“When I started, I didn’t realize the size of the sport in the state,” Vines said. “When I was in high school, the only sports that got attention were football, basketball and baseball. You’d hear about a track meet every now and then, and that was it.
“Shooting a bow is not a difficult thing, but shooting a bow well is another thing altogether. Offering students the opportunity to give it a try and see where they can grow from there is an amazing thing.”
For some students, competitive archery was a natural extension of something they’d been doing since their single-digit years. Others made their own introduction much more recently.
“When I was younger, my dad shot with me,” Tharp said. “I started with a toy bow that was his when he was younger. When I got to middle school, I saw I could shoot competitively. Many of my coaches have become as close as parents to me.”
“My dad got me my first bow when I was 10,” Madison White, a junior, said. “I’m 17 now. I started shooting competitively at Guntown and was the top female shooter my 7th grade year. I absolutely love it.”
Chase Patterson, a junior, found his way into the sport in December, having never shot a bow before. A few weeks ago, his work for the team landed his score in their top 12 and contributed to the 3393 total that claimed their ninth title.
“I texted a friend one day and asked if he wanted to get a state championship ring,” Patterson said. “My friend and I went to Coach cates and asked to join. I had never shot a bow in my life and didn’t know how it worked. I showed up and they taught me and that’s how it worked out. I didn’t really have anything going on in life other than schoolwork itself. Archery gave me motivation and something to do, something to strive for.”
Next season, he’ll return to the team as a senior and do his best to help lead the team to make it 10 in a row.
“What I find most enjoyable about archery is how we can pick it up and carry on with our friends,” Landon Baird, a sophomore, said. “The friendships I’ve made along the way are what men it so outstanding for me.”