Ottumwa archers headed to state

Mar. 1—OTTUMWA — Wednesday night was meant to be a celebration at Liberty Elementary School.

All told, 42 members of the Ottumwa archery program were honored in front of their family and friends as qualifiers for the Iowa State Archery Tournament. There were smiles. There were laughs. There was applause, cheers and even confetti guns going off to celebrate a state tournament sendoff for the archers.

There were also tears. It was, after all, a bittersweet night for the teammate that would have in all likelihood have been the 43rd member of the program to be honored as a state qualifier.

"I had one senior come through those doors tonight when I should have had two," Ottumwa archery coach Cliff Tucker said on Wednesday. "It's always in the back of our minds. It's rough. Hopefully, they go up there to state and they shoot for him."

Him is Tristen Ebelsheiser, who joined 45 other Ottumwa archery teammates last year in qualifying for state including one of 18 state qualifiers from the Ottumwa High School archery team. Ebelsheiser would have likely been honored along with Daltin Maas as Ottumwa's two senior state qualifiers this year.

Those dreams came to a sudden and tragic end before the start of the season. Ebelsheiser died in his sleep this past October due to medical complications, leaving archers on every level of the program stunned and saddened by the loss of someone that was a friend and leader.

"In my head, I still have the advice that Tristen told me to help me shoot better. He was one of my biggest influences," Eisenhower Elementary archer Shayden Stevens said. "Tristen always told me to go up there and do the best I could at every meet. That's I'm going to try to do on Saturday at state. I've been working really hard this year.

"When I started out, Tristen would always hold up the No. 1 with his finger. I knew what that meant, to be No. 1 at state and at nationals. That always comes into my head every time I come in here to shoot."

Of the 42 archers that will compete for the Ottumwa Community School District this weekend, 10 will be representing Ottumwa High School. For many of those archers, the loss of Ebelsheiser hit them the hardest losing not only just a teammate, but a classmate and a longtime friend.

"Tristen was a good friend. We'd always hang out and talk every year we'd be going to state," said Ottumwa sophomore Austin Westmoreland, who is preparing to compete at state for the sixth time. "When I started out, I would always aim a little too high, so I'd get mad after tournaments depending on how I'd shoot. He would always be there to help calm me down. It helped me realize that some days I'll have a bad shoot and some days, I won't. When I have those bad shoots, you just have to control it and move on.

"Tristen was always good with helping out anyone on the team that needed it. It helps me shoot better knowing that I'm going up there each time shooting for my friend."

Heading into this year's state tournament, Ottumwa has brought home first-place medals from every local tournament producing multiple team championships in both 3-D and block target competitions. The Evans Middle School archery team even posted an impressive top-five finish at the Border Wars Tournament in Kansas, finishing fourth overall competing against archers from nine different states with Kelsie Swallow finishing third out of 162 middle school girls just two weeks ago.

"Last year at state, I was a little nervous," Kelsie Swallow said. "This year, I'm more confident. I'm ready for it."

Swallow will be joined in the competition for the second straight year by her sister, Allison, who has helped Evans Middle School bring home first-place trophies from every in-state tournament that Ottumwa has competed in during the regular season. Having the experience of actually competing on the arena floor of the Jacobsen Building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds was certainly an eye-opening experience last year.

"I'd always been up there to watch (Kelsie) shoot, but it was different being down there shooting instead of up in the stands watching," Allison Swallow said. "There's only about 21-22 targets at a normal tournament. The state tournament has 50 targets. It's something you have to adjust to."

Both the Swallows, like so many of their Ottumwa archery teammates, are continuing to draw inspiration from Ebelsheiser. The team, as they have throughout the season, will again have Ebelsheiser's uniform in a seat on the arena floor when they go out to compete this weekend at state.

"I feel a lot more confident knowing that I have my brother out there with me," Kelsie Swallow said while wiping away tears on Wednesday. "It was huge to have teams from all over that reached out to us and wanted to help honor him. It's brought all of us in archery much closer together. When you lose someone that's been a part of this since their fourth grade year, it leaves a mark.

"I walked in to compete when I was in fourth grade and I was very nervous. He was the first person that told me not to be nervous. It'll be fine. From the get-go, he kind and compassionate. There was a special bond that we instantly developed. It's like we were instant siblings."

However things end on Saturday, competing at the level the Ottumwa archery program has this year has been nothing short of amazing. A season that started under such tragic circumstances could come to an inspiration end as the Ottumwa archers shoot for something, and someone, even bigger in the Iowa NASP Tournament.

"It's been hard for us. We've got to focus even harder this season," Allison Swallow said. "We're used to competing with Tristen out there. Now, we have to remember him for all the things he'd do for us."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.