TRAVERSE CITY -- Unlike a real game, Saturday's Knights of Columbus Free Throw Competition provided shooters with a hushed background.

No crowd noise, no jeers or cheers. Just polite clapping after each shooter ages 9-14 completed their 15 shots, punctuated by an occasional sign at an adept swish or quiet gasp for an unlucky carom.

The occasion was the annual Knights of Columbus Free Throw Competition where councils around the region hosted area youth pitting their skills against the basket and each other.

In Traverse City, the event featured two face offs while councils in Elk Rapids, Lake Leelanau and St. Mary's of Hannah will also sponsor the competition this month. Council 9979 hosted one at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Middle School that drew 11 participants while the event at St. Francis High School, co-hosted by councils 13958 and 1213, drew nine. Winners in each age category and gender advance to a district event, scheduled for Jan. 26 at St. Francis High School.

"We're giving them an opportunity to have fun and a chance to compete," said Charlie Elsenheimer, Grand Knight of Council 9979 based in Acme at Christ the King Catholic Church.

Organizers of the annual event hope to boost numbers for future competitions, which are open to any boy or girl in the age group. Winners at the local, district and regional levels can advance to the state and national levels, a nice reward for participants to shoot for.

"You don't have to be a Knight or a member of the parish to come -- anybody can come," said Denny Courtade, organizer of the council 9979 competition. "We want twice as many next year, three times as many."

The Knights of Columbus would like to draw more first-time participants like sisters Kelly and Anna O'Hara. Members of the Lady Bulldogs homeschool junior varsity basketball team, the girls wanted to attend in prior years but always had a basketball tournament scheduled at the same time. This year they were pleased to find their schedules free Saturday morning.

Kelly, 12, had mixed feelings about the quiet atmosphere during her stint at the free throw line.

"I like it when there's talking and commotion but sometimes it helps when it's silent," she noted, adding that she keeps her cool in the spotlight. "I don't get nervous."

Her sister was notable because of her distinctive pre-shot ritual: three short staccato dribbles before aiming and shooting. This approach netted 13 out of 15 tries and a trip to the next level.

"Coach always says do the same thing every single time," said Anna, 14, of Lady Bulldogs coach Kris Crosby. "So you're not looking around, just looking at one thing and that's what you're focusing on."

Two years ago, A.J. Weber was a state semi-finalist for his age. This year the seventh grader at Traverse City Christian School, who plays on the eighth-grade team at school, hopes to advance through the levels again. Sinking 11 of 15 shots, he qualified for the district competition later this month.

"I definitely practiced for this," said Weber, whose favorite sport is basketball.

With a distinctive free-throw ritual of his own -- two bounces, quick backspin of the ball in both hands and a small toss -- before each throw, he has a winning combination of moves.

"It kind of helps me get into the rhythm when I shoot," Weber said, who appreciated the atmosphere of the Free Throw Competition. "It was really quiet so it was a lot easier to concentrate."

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