Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
By Margie Wuebker
Maria Stein student hopes to sink win at national hoop shoot contest
  MARIA STEIN - Second-grader Natalie Rethman enters the Marion Elementary School gym intent on shooting some hoops.
With her pink, gray and white tennis shoes firmly planted against the foul line, she bounces the basketball twice while focusing on the rim. She launches the ball effortlessly and watches it sail through the net with a muted swish.
At age 9, Natalie has her sights set on a national championship this weekend in Springfield, Mass., as part of the Elks USA Hoop Shoot. The ambitious accomplishment hinges on 25 shots; the majority of which she prays hit paydirt.
Her route to the national competition began in December in the Marion Local gym under the direction of physical education teacher and girls basketball coach Treva Fortkamp. The A student won the local contest and then sunk 16 of 25 free throws in her age group at the county level earning an all-expense paid trip to district competition at the University of Findlay. She outshot the competition there and went on to the regional event in Angola, Ind., where she blew away contenders from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan with 21 successful shots despite a raging 101-degree fever.
"Natalie woke up during the night complaining about being hot and she was burning up," her mother Maria says. "We were not sure whether she would be up to shooting but she wanted to try."
She sank nine of 10 shots during the first heat and 12 out of 15 in the second to collect a shiny Olympic-style medal suspended from red, white and blue ribbon and a tall trophy.
The youngster, who likes soccer, fishing, math and physical education, is not overly anxious about Saturday's competition.
"I always say a prayer before going to the line," she admits with a smile. "Then I just go out there and shoot. I don't count how many balls go in because that just screws me up. There are guys from the Elks keeping track for each age group."
Natalie is no stranger to Elks USA Hoop Shoots as her sister Brandi, an eighth-grader, went to state and her brother Dustin, a sixth-grader, tied for first in regional action but lost in a subsequent shootout. They will be in her cheering section along with Mom and Dad (Mike), while 6-year-old Heidi stays home with relatives.
"The people in the stands have to be real quiet," Natalie says. "But I know my family is up there and that's what counts."
The Rethmans were amazed at the number of regional competitors who play on traveling teams and work out at sports centers in their respective communities. A number asked about Natalie's schedule.
Maria chuckles recalling her reply, "She shoots in the driveway with her brother and we occasionally take her to school in the evening to practice," which raised a few eyebrows.
"I don't have any secrets," Natalie admits with a smile. "I just tell myself 'I can do this' and then I concentrate on the rim hoping the ball goes in. It does most of the time."
Sipping on a small glass of soda pop and munching miniature pretzels, she talks about leaving home at 2:45 a.m. Friday to make the 6 a.m. flight and taking along good-luck mementos from classmates and teacher Elaine Marbaugh. The thought of competing against 11 other regional winners from across the U.S. does not bother her in the least.
"It would be nice to win a trophy because they keep getting bigger and the winner's name goes in the National Basketball Hall of Fame," she says. "But it wouldn't make me sad if someone made more hoops than me because I would still get to swim in the hotel pool and that's really cool."
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