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Taking her shot: Local girl competes in national hoops competition

During this past NBA season, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors led all players with a free throw percentage of 91 percent. One third-grade girl from Pequot Lakes wasn't far off that pace when she competed in the Elks Hoop Shoot national ...

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During this past NBA season, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors led all players with a free throw percentage of 91 percent.

One third-grade girl from Pequot Lakes wasn't far off that pace when she competed in the Elks Hoop Shoot national competition in April in Massachusetts.

Nine-year-old Kelsi Martini of Pequot Lakes ended up in a four-way tie for third in the age 8-9 girls bracket at the national competition, making 21 of her 25 shots, or 84 percent. Martini was the first local Elks Hoop Shoot contestant to make it to the national competition.

"It was really cool," Martini said.

Martini's road to the national stage started on the local level, where she won the competition at her school, Eagle View Elementary School. Then, she won the district competition and proceeded to take down all comers at the state competition in Hutchinson.

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The idea of making the national competition didn't occur to Martini until she was competing in the regional competition in Iowa City, Iowa.

"When I was doing the tiebreaker at regionals in Iowa City, and shot 5-5," Martini said. "Then I thought I'd be able to go."

When Martini told her friends at school she'd be going on her first plane trip to Massachusetts for the national competition, they were "really excited for me," she said.

"They told me they were really going to start practicing so they could go next year," Martini said.

The Elks also set up a way for fans from home to send messages of support to each shooter. The group printed out and prepared a booklet with all the well-wishes, and Martini had one of the thickest books there.

"There was a class in school, they wrote emails to me," Martini said.

Martini's mom, Lisa, a teacher at Eagle View, said the Elks did a great job of "making the trip all about the kids."

There was a kids' night with a movie and pizza for the shooters and an outing to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. Kelsi said her favorite part about the hall of fame was getting to shoot on different kinds of hoops from basketball history. The oldest hoop was no more than a basket on a pole, without a modern backboard.

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Kelsi's dad Shaun said Kelsi did a "great job" at the national competition, and he and Lisa are "really proud of her."

"It's nerve-wracking," Lisa said with a laugh. "I think we got more nervous than she does."

It's certainly a lot of pressure for a 9-year-old, Shaun said.

"I would say we did a pretty good job of stressing to not put pressure on Kels, and to just have fun and do your best," Shaun said.

"Sometimes they roll in and sometimes roll out," Lisa said. "And that's just the way basketball is."

Kelsi is usually a cool customer, but she admitted she did get a little nervous seeing the 71 other shooters at the national competition.

"Everybody thinks that she doesn't get nervous, because she looks pretty calm out there," Lisa said. "But she's said she gets a little nervous."

Kelsi's laid-back practice regimen also contrasted with some of the other shooters, Lisa said. Some of the kids were shooting 250 free throws per day, and Kelsi was "nowhere near that," due to commitments to other activities like swimming, softball, volleyball and tennis.

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"We'd shoot maybe 100 (shots), then three days later, shoot again," Lisa said.

Adding to the momentous nature of the trip was the addition of Kelsi's 2-month-old baby sister, Darci. Kelsi's grandparents were also able to make the trip to cheer her on.

"Kelsi did a great job, it was a busy time of the year," Lisa said. "It was crazy."

The Elks gave each shooter a true professional experience by providing them with packs of trading cards, featuring their own likenesses and statistics.

"It was a great icebreaker for the kids, because they could just go up to each other and say, 'Hey, do you want my card?'" Lisa said. "And then they would talk a little bit."

The Elks organization makes sure the families accompanying the shooters are taken care of, Lisa said. That includes paying for airfare for shooters and parents, hotel accommodations and providing shuttle transportation while they were there.

"We would have went either way, but it sure made it nice," Shaun said.

Shooting free throws in a high-pressure situation has given Kelsi greater sympathy for NBA players who struggle at the free throw line.

"I know that they have pressure too, so it's hard for them too," Kelsi said.

Next year, Kelsi will compete in the Hoop Shoot's age 10-11 bracket, and will shoot from the real free-throw line, instead of the age 8-9 line, which is a few feet closer. She'll also be competing against a shooter she knows pretty well, her older sister Maci.

Dick Lyscio, Brainerd Elks Lodge No. 615 Hoop Shoot chair said he was Kelsi's biggest fan when it came to cheering her on her way to nationals.

"I was the most excited, happiest fan there ever was," Lyscio said. "It was a thrill for me."

The local Elks chapter hasn't put together a recognition event for Kelsi, Lyscio said. But at the organization's volunteer appreciation night in the fall, "Kelsi will be invited to show up for some free food and visiting. We'll brag her up quite a bit."

Kelsi, with the help of her parents, sent the local Elks chapter a thank-you letter upon her return. In the letter, she mentions all of her favorite things about the road to nationals.

"I have learned a lot about myself and what I can accomplish when I work hard," Kelsi wrote. "My family and I had a ton of fun and will never forget this experience."

The Elks Hoop Shoot isn't about the competition, Lyscio said. It's about giving kids an experience they'll remember and lessons they can take with them.

"We don't teach, but the discipline they learn themselves on how to shoot, what to do, how to handle the stress, it's incredible," Lyscio said.

Kelsi has taken those lessons to heart, Lyscio said.

"This young little girl is so poised," Lyscio said. "In all the competitions and all the levels and personal meetings, I've never seen that girl without a smile. She's one incredible little girl."

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

Related Topics: PEQUOT LAKES
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