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Sonoma State University's straight arrows


COTATI — When it first came into existence in the fall of 2011, the Sonoma State Archery Club practiced in the small field house on campus. The students hung an “arrow net” to absorb the sharp-tipped projectiles, but it wasn’t foolproof. The less experienced archers (which was most of them) would sometimes overshoot the net and plant an arrow in the wall.

Don’t worry, no Seawolves were harmed in the making of this story. And 2½ years later, the club has come a long way. In May, in fact, SSU Archery acquitted itself well at the annual U.S. Intercollegiate Archery National Championships at El Dorado Park in Long Beach — site of the archery events in the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Archery is not recognized by the NCAA as an intercollegiate sport. This is purely a club activity. Because of that distinction, however, Sonoma State wasn’t picking on schools its own size at the championships. The Seawolves were competing against the likes of Cal, Stanford, UCLA and Texas A&M.

And yet they excelled. Seniors Shawn Kelley and Amanda Saiki brought home fourth place in the Recurve Mixed division, and Kelley, senior Zachary Truskolaski, and junior Frank Bae took sixth place in the Recurve Men’s division.

Not bad for the first appearance in any tournament of significance for SSU, a newcomer in the world of archery.

“We borrowed a banner from the admissions office and hung it on our tent,” said Jeffrey Reeder, a professor of Spanish Linguistics, Culture and Translation at Sonoma State and the club’s coach and advisor. “One day it was next to Georgia Tech’s, another day it was next to UCLA’s. And people asked me, ‘Sonoma, where’s that? Is that near Flagstaff? Sedona?’ ”

Reeder lived in Colombia for part of his childhood. It was a time of civil unrest, and Reeder spent most of his time in the backyard. His father taught him to use a bow, and the boy spent hours firing arrows at rotten mangos.

A few years ago, Reeder was looking to start an archery club at SSU. Coincidentally, so were a few students, including then-sophomore Truskolaski. They combined their efforts and the club was born.

After spending most of the first year practicing in the field house, the Sonoma State archers were given a place at the campus track. The targets are backed by a berm, 20 to 25 feet high, and behind that are trees and open space. In other words, there is a little chance of a wayward arrow causing injury.

In fact, administered properly, archery is not a particularly dangerous activity.

“When we were getting the club started, the school understandably was worried about liability,” Reeder said. “We were able to find out from the insurance company and from a variety of other sources that in official actuarial tables, archery is the fourth safest of all recognized collegiate sports.”

Because of its relaxed atmosphere, the SSU archery club is a fairly fluid group. Everyone is welcome, even first-timers. The club has starter bows and arrows to lend.

“I tell people I’ll have them hitting a hay bale at 10 yards the first time they shoot,” said Truskolaski, who just graduated with a geography degree and want to fly search-and-rescue planes.

Truskolaski said the team usually starts the school year with about 50 members. Then it rains and some drop out. Then come midterms, and more fall off. By the end of the term, the club is left with about 15 dedicated archers.

The standard event is shooting at a bull’s eye, 24.4 centimeters in diameter, from 50 meters — or as Reeder likes to say, “Imagine a honeydew melon that’s half a city block away.” Once he or she steps to the line, each archer has four minutes to shoot six arrows.

The physical demands are not huge, but the sport takes tremendous concentration.

“If you have just one or two millimeters off anywhere along the way — if your shoulder’s pushed out more, if your fingers are lower or higher — that translates into as much as a foot or two feet on the target,” Reeder said.

There are two major divisions within archery. Compound bows are equipped with scopes, and use a system of cams that allows the archer to lock the drawn arrow into place with little resistance or movement; the arrow is released with a trigger apparatus.

The other option is a more traditional recurve bow, and that’s what each member of the SSU team took to Long Beach. The recurve, also known as a barebow, builds pressure as the shooter pulls the arrow toward his/her body. Kelley uses a 65-pound bow once owned by his grandfather, meaning that when his string is fully stretched, it’s like holding a 65-pound weight.

“Someone that shoots recurves, your shooting style is more instinctive,” Kelley said. “They call it instinctive shooting. You’re not focused on looking through a sight, like on a gun.”

That wasn’t a problem for Truskolaski, who has been hunting since he was a child. He found a compound bow easier to operate when he first started, but he, too, has gravitated to barebow.

Kelley goes a step further in his nod to tradition. He has made several bows by hands, and he competes with home-made strings that he fashions from a synthetic fiber called B50 Dacron. He learned archery from his father, who grew up shooting in apple orchards around Santa Rosa.

“My first bow was literally a branch,” said Kelley, who was about 7 when he started. “And my bowstring was construction twine.”

Kelley and Truskolaski both grew up in Rohnert Park-Cotati, though Kelley’s family moved to Lake County. He graduated from Kelseyville High. Truskolaski went to Tech High. Both are thrilled to see the budding interest in archery at Sonoma State, where their club is one of the largest on campus.

It was Reeder who suggested the Seawolves get competitive. He looked at results from the 2013 collegiate championships and realized that his students were right there with the top teams. So SSU signed on for 2014. Of course, they had to pay for the trip themselves. The club got an early $5,000 grant from the Easton company and a smaller gift from US Collegiate Archery, but that money went to equipment.

Sonoma State was at a clear disadvantage at the championships. Some of the 41 teams represented are able to practice daily; because of demand for limited practice space at SSU, the Seawolves are limited to four hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday. (There are private indoor ranges in Santa Rosa and Novato, and an outdoor range at Lake Sonoma for those so inclined.) The Sonoma State range has no storage containers, and doesn’t even quite measure out to 50 meters.

To add to the challenge, the tournament fell in the middle of a record heat wave. Bae was on the line at one point, in full draw, when his riser — the central part of the bow that serves as a handle — melted and snapped in half. It snapped back and left him with a welt on his face. Strong, dry Santa Ana winds affected the arrows’ flight.

And yet the Seawolves mostly hit their marks.

“This was SSU’s first tournament ever,” said Saiki, who is from Los Angeles. “All the scores we got were school bests.”

At least until next year. The Sonoma State archery club doesn’t seem to be going away.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.