GRANTS PASS — Makhala Caldwell remembers vividly that sixth-grade P.E. class two years ago when she was introduced to the weapon of her affection.

GRANTS PASS — Makhala Caldwell remembers vividly that sixth-grade P.E. class two years ago when she was introduced to the weapon of her affection.

A teacher trained by the National Archery in the Schools Program handed Caldwell a compound bow and an arrow, and an archer was born.

"It was kind of scary holding this pretty large weapon in your hand," says Caldwell, 14. "It's dangerous, but kind of thrilling."

The danger aspect is long since gone. But the thrill remains, and it's catapulting Caldwell to new heights.

The eighth-grader at North Middle School in Grants Pass shot her way to Kentucky, where she will compete next month against almost 5,000 other girls in NASP's national competition.

Caldwell bested all the other middle-schoolers at NASP's statewide tournament in March in Grants Pass, qualifying her to take on a national field representing 39 states in Louisville's Kentucky Exposition Center during what annually is the world's largest indoor archery shoot. The national tournament is May 9-10.

"Getting to shoot there is going to be a lot of fun," Caldwell says. "I love shooting."

Kentuckian Roy Grimes started the program in Kentucky in 2001 as a way to offer kids such as Caldwell an opportunity to test-drive archery in a controlled environment with trained instructors offering free access to equipment.

Within a year, the program went national, and now it's in 77,000 schools in 47 states and 10 countries, teaching 13 million kids from grades four through 12 how to safely let loose arrows at targets in a program that remains accident-free, Grimes says.

The program has grown 16 to 22 percent annually, and it actually saw greater growth before Hollywood discovered archery and created the "Hunger Games" craze among young archers, especially girls.

"We think we've created a lot of interest for them," Grimes says.

Oregon has 11 middle and high schools with a NASP instructor, and the program has a strong presence in Josephine County, says Greg Rodgers, the statewide volunteer coordinator, who would like to see the program expand to Medford schools.

Grimes says student surveys routinely give the program high marks. Students say shooting arrows is fun, they enjoy its accessibility and it provides a chance to meet new friends.

"They like the fact that they don't have to be tall, strong, fast or pretty to shoot arrows," Grimes says.

Three-fourths of NASP participants are like Caldwell — having never fired an arrow before the class.

Two years after that first arrow, Caldwell not only out-shot all the middle-school girls in March's state tournament, she also dusted the boys.

"She's good because she has natural ability, which is important, and she's willing to practice hard," says Tanya Ferguson, Caldwell's volunteer instructor at school.

"We practice every day, and she practices at school," says Ferguson, who plans to accompany Caldwell to Kentucky.

The pair meet nightly at North Middle School's gym, practicing the various shots she'll take at the national tournament.

In competition, participants shoot only unmodified Genesis bows without sights at standing targets 10 and 15 meters away. This year a 3-dimensional target will be added, as well. Bullseyes count for 10 points, with points diminishing as the circles move away from center.

Top score is 300. Caldwell shot a 259, her all-time best, to win the state tournament — her first tournament — and become the first North Middle School student to reach the national finals.

She'll need to pick up her shooting significantly in Kentucky, Rodgers says. Perfect scores are common, with the numbers of 10- and 9-point arrows often the criteria used to determine rank, he says.

"The difference between first and 50th place is usually one point," says Rodgers, of Murphy. "Still, it's a good experience for kids."

Caldwell says whether she's practicing in her school gym or lining up in Louisville next month, the exhilaration of shooting well will resonate with her.

"The feeling of shooting a 10 is amazing," Caldwell says. "It's like, 'I'm good at this.' "

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or Follow him at