Diné College archers aim to defend national title

By Candace Begody
Navajo Times

TSAILE, Ariz., April 13, 2012

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(Courtesy photo - Ed McCombs/Diné College)

Diné College archery coach Fray Gray, left, helps Annovedwin Barakzai, middle, and Ben Smith, right, during practice.

M uch like they did last year, the Diné College archery team is hoping to turn heads this season.

Last year, the women's team brought home the school's first-ever national title in the compound bow category by defeating Texas A&M. This was the first time any all-Native American team claimed a national title and that winning team was led by third-year shooter Samantha Yessilth.

"We had to work really hard for it," she said during in interview at the college's shooting range in Tsaile, Ariz. "It took a lot of practice and a lot of dedication."

This year's team - including two rookies who replaced two graduates from last year - will be defending the title.

"We want to do that," Yessilth said of defending the team title. "The rookies I have been working with are shooting really well now."

Head coach Fray Gray can second that as he witnessed positive results when his team competed at the U.S. Collegiate Archery Association's national indoor archery tournament in Cedar City, Utah, in early March.

"Every year we bring in a new bunch of archers," said Gray, adding that most newcomers shoot around a 400 to 500 with 1,200 being a perfect score. "But this year, we didn't have any shoot under a 700 - that is unheard of."

Each year, Diné College loses 80 percent of the archery team, mostly to graduation. They start with almost an entire new crop with one or two leaders on the team.

Yessilth is one of those, but so is second-year student Beto Vecenti.

Vecenti started shooting last year on a simple bow and has since advanced to a Hoyt bow.

During the 2010 Warrior Shootout, Vecenti was finally able to step out of his comfort zone. He ended up winning the tournament and beating the top two archers at the time.

Today, Vecenti, who is ranked No. 9 out of 139 archers in the recurve category, is leading the boys' team.

"I just practiced, practiced, practiced," he said. "There I saw my potential."

Since then he's been working hard in hopes of being named one of the best in the country.

"This year, my goal is to take All-American," Vecenti said, adding he is only 59 points from first place and being named an All-America. "It's going to be a lot of work and I know it's going to be tough. I just have to stay on top with school, practice as much as I can and prepare myself mentally."

Vecenti isn't just thinking of an individual finish. He is also trying to help others get up to par.

"I put myself out here as an example," he said. "If there is practice, I make sure I am out here and show them it takes practice, time and effort to be where you want to be."

The team will travel to the West Regional Championships in Los Angeles this month where they will compete against West Coast teams.

"We normally dominate and come back with a lot of medals," Gray said of teams like the University of Southern California, Stanford University, University of California at Los Angeles and Arizona State University. "We stay pace with them really well."

Come May, the team will head to James Madison University in West Virginia to compete with the best in the nation.

"What I am trying to promote, mostly to our locals, is the competition they face," Gray said. "They are not aware of the competition we face."

Gray said what is most impressive is that the archers at Diné College have had to overcome many challenges.

For example, while Division I schools have access to training centers, his archers have to travel as far away as Phoenix for the nearest range.

"I attribute a lot of it to our heritage," Gray said. "It's in our blood. It's just finding a way to open that and take advantage of that skill that is unseen.

"I think a lot of people would be impressed with what we've done in such a short period of time," he added.

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