The Tampa Bay HEAT is not a traditional school, but a vibrant collection of about 700 homeschooling families in Brandon, Florida, who work together to provide classes, sports, and extracurricular activities. And in February, the co-op’s high school archery team won a state tournament that featured top competitors from public and private schools.
“This is a big win for homeschool teams all over the nation,” head coach David Dlugo said. He instructs younger students in the club and coaches the club’s competitive archery teams.
As a bonus, the team’s score fell only four points short of the state record.
The team’s victory is more than just a sports championship. It illustrates the potential of privately funded, parent-organized homeschool groups. As Dlugo pointed out, his team currently receives no regular outside financial support, yet it defeated archery squads that enjoy much greater resources.
“We don’t even have a gym,” he said. “We rent out a barn for twenty-five dollars a month behind a church building. We shoot out on the grass with a bunch of fire ants. That’s how we practice.”
The Tampa Bay HEAT are able to compete as a homeschool team against challengers, including public schools, because they participate in the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), a nonprofit that facilitates participation in various educational programs.
Home School Legal Defense Association has been happy to work with NASP in recent years to help make its archery programs available to as many homeschooled students as possible.
“We see NASP as a valuable asset for homeschool groups who wish to teach teamwork, discipline, and self-improvement through the sport of archery,” Darren Jones, HSLDA Senior Counsel and Director of Group Services, said.
NASP’s accommodation of homeschoolers has certainly benefited the Tampa Bay HEAT team, which has not only become more competitive, but has also seen significant growth in the number of students who participate.
Archery is one of several sports offered by the co-op. The archery program was launched in 2012 and started competing in 2014, the first year that NASP ran tournaments in Florida.
Early on, the Tampa Bay HEAT witnessed some standout individual performances, but progress as a team suffered when the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed competition in 2020. Dlugo joined the program in 2021, after many years of experience coaching a homeschool archery team in Louisville, Kentucky, in which his kids participated.
“I learned a lot in Kentucky, because the competition is so fierce there,” Dlugo said.
When Dlugo arrived in Florida in 2021, the Tampa Bay HEAT competitive archery team had just 14 students. By 2023 that number increased to 42 archers, and the overall program had grown to include 85 students.
Participants included kids with physical and learning challenges, and younger kids in the instructional clubs. All of these athletes live within about a 15-mile radius of the Tampa Bay HEAT facilities, Dlugo said.
An Almost-Stolen Opportunity
The team opened this year hoping to build on its third-place finish in the 2022 state tournament, but encountered a setback that threatened to disrupt the season before it started. On the first day of practice, Dlugo and the assistant coaches went to the storage barn on the property of a local church where the program stores its equipment.
“The lock was cut,” Dlugo said. “We had $2,500 worth of equipment stolen. I couldn’t believe it.” Thieves had made off with about one-third of the program’s bows and tools, and even a box of clipboards.
There was no way to immediately make up for the loss, because the program only receives funding through a nominal participation fee charged to each student.
“I had to send an email to the co-op saying I didn’t know when we could restart the program,” Dlugo said.
Then something happened a few weeks later that hinted at the extraordinary season that was to follow. “We had an anonymous donor, and we were able to replace almost everything,” Dlugo said.
After the season’s turbulent beginning, the Tampa Bay HEAT went on to post its highest team score ever and brought home the state title.
Several homeschooled archers also won individual honors. Jillian Rambis took first place among high school girls, and Landon Ledford finished first among middle school boys. Senior Nathan Cook repeated his 2021 achievement by finishing as the state’s top male high schooler.
Nathan’s family has a history of involvement in the archery program. His older sister Abigail was also a standout on the team before taking over as head coach in 2018, after graduating from high school. Nathan and Abigail’s parents have also been longtime supporters.
Nathan noted that thanks to the inspiration provided by his sister, the enthusiasm of teammates, and the technical insights of Dlugo, his own performance has improved dramatically.
“There was a hundred-point increase from when I first started,” he said.
He happily exulted in his team’s triumph, while also relishing the rewards of his own achievement, which include a commemorative bow, a large trophy, and a $5,000 scholarship.
“We made a lot of noise when we found out we’d won,” Nathan said. “I felt surprised and blessed.”Dlugo added his own praise for the team. “These kids are dedicated, passionate, and motivated,” he said. “They came out of it with the most incredible joy, rejoicing over their win. They wanted to prove that they can do something well.”