Nine-year old Sam Schwirse is good at shooting free throws. And not just good for his age. He represented northeast Oregon at the state Elks Hoop Shoot free throw shooting contest this weekend in Salem. The kid hit 21-of-25 from the charity stripe in the Hermiston-wide round of the competition and would have had 22 had it not been for a line fault.
That’s 84 percent! For some perspective, Shaquille O’Neal, who made nearly $300 million during his 20 years in the NBA, was a career 52.7 percent shooter of free throws.
“They’re fun because they’re easy to shoot,” said Schwirse, currently honing his basketball skills as a third grader at Highland Hills Elementary in Hermiston.
One shining example has been the Stanfield girls’ basketball team. With apologizes to Candice Valentine — the team’s coach who is more sick of talking to me about the topic than any person could be of anything — the Tigers have come within a few missed free throws of maybe turning their 9-15 record into a 15-9.
Stanfield is much better than their record suggests, having lost five games by three points or less, including four of those with free throw percentages well below 50 percent. Among the losses was the most miraculous game I’ve seen while reporting for the EO, a single-point loss to Weston-McEwen on one untimed free throw by the TigerScots’ Molly von Borstel in January.
Tiger Emma Gabriel summed it up with one word: Confidence.
“Our confidence on the free throw line is not there,” she said after a one-point loss to Pilot Rock this month.
But we’re not here to pick on Stanfield. Less-than free throws haunt many players.
“It’s a free throw so you should make it, especially if you’re not getting easy points in a game,” junior Heidi Walchli of the Hermiston girls’ team said.
Walchli exhibits the ideals of many players when they step to the line. Superstition plays a role in her approach, but she goes much deeper than a dribble or deep breath before the shot.
Walchli lets the ball bounce twice before flipping it out in front of her. Then she lines up her feet with the stripe — always the right one first, then the left.
“Then I bend a little — I don’t know how far but I always feel the inside of my elbow,” she said of her routine. “You have to do the same thing every time. It’s in your brain. Memorize it in your brain.”
That sort of obsessive step-by-step preparation isn’t for everyone. Pendleton’s Deon Davis doesn’t believe in free throw voodoo, one of the few players who ignores routine entirely. He said he fiddles around and rarely does the same thing twice pre-shot.
“Basically I do whatever I feel like when I get up there,” Davis said.
Both strategies work for the shooters. You can count Walchli’s misses during Columbia River Confernece play on one hand with Davis’ total not much higher.
Yet still, they’re no Sam Schwirse.
AJ Mazzolini is a sports reporter for the East Oregonian. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.