The atmosphere at the Holiday Recreation Complex was intense Saturday as the annual Elks National Free Throw Hoop Shoot contest was put on by the New Port Richey Elks Lodge.
The competition is held by every Elks lodge in the country. There are nine in Pasco County that are split up into districts. The contestants, kids ages 8 to 13, learned about the competition from their schools. It is the largest noncommercial coed sporting event in the United States.
"It's a competition that teaches the kids competitiveness and builds their egos," Elks district chairman Charles Rulison said. "If they win here, they go onto another bigger competition. There are five levels to get through to get to nationals, and if they win there, their names are inscribed on a plaque in the basketball hall of fame in Springfield, Mass."
The Elks are a fraternal organization dedicated to helping kids succeed. The Hoop Shoot contest awards winners college scholarship money. The organization has become the second-largest scholarship provider in the country behind only the federal government.
The competition is broken down by age groups, with the younger kids allowed to shoot from a closer distance than the older kids. The balls and hoops are regulation size, and the competition is kept quiet to allow the kids maximum concentration. Each contestant gets 25 shots.
For Rulison, 63, the Hoop Shoot is an opportunity to give something to kids, something he had never had a chance to do with children of his own.
"I like kids and I feel the Hoop Shoot program is a worthwhile program," Rulison said. "I've been involved with this for 17 years and I like the competitiveness and focus it teaches them. I never had any kids myself, so I enjoy it."
Parents in attendance at the shootout watched their kids compete and expressed gratitude to the Elks for staging the competition.
Tina Smith of New Port Richey, 50, had two daughters in last week's competition and has seen firsthand the work the Elks put into the Hoop Shoot.
"The Elks do an incredible job of coordinating all this for the kids," Smith said. "It gives the kids the chance to exceed in what they like to do. It's a nice event, and I'm glad they go out of their way to sponsor an event like this."
The Hoop Shoot's benefits go beyond just the competition and potential scholarship. According to Rulison, there are other aspects of the competition for the kids to enjoy.
"It helps them meet other kids, too," Rulison said. "If they get past here, they get to travel all around and go places they may not otherwise go, so there is more to it than just competing."
Contestants such as Peyton Sestok, 10, relish the opportunity to do something they're good at for a potential reward.
"My favorite part is just shooting," he said. "This is my second time doing this, and I really enjoy the competition and its format.
"I wouldn't change anything about it."
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