Come with me along the back roads of Shillington Borough in Berks County. Never been here before? Neither have I. Trust the GPS. It’s taking us someplace good. I promise.
There. Around the bend. On the right. See that driveway tucked between the trees? Follow it. Down the hill. Through the clearing to the gravel parking lot. We’ve made it to the premises of the Reading Archery Club.
There’s someone here I want you to meet. She’s one of about 40 archers in grades three through 12 that make up the club's Scholastic 3-D Archery team. The club itself opened in 1953, and its S3DA team launched in 2015. It is believed to be the first S3DA club in Pennsylvania. More on that later.
Right now, I want you to meet Alivia Slusser. She’s the 4-foot, 8-inch, blonde-haired, 11-year-old girl over there standing on the gray, cement walkway holding up a bow in her left hand and pulling back an arrow with her right hand.
Alivia just began sixth grade at Cocalico Middle School. Earlier this year, at a virtual graduation ceremony for fifth-graders at Cocalico’s Reamstown Elementary School, Alivia was one of only three students given an award for having achieved straight A's, a feat she accomplished in two of her final three years as an elementary school student.
So is what Alivia has done in archery over the last three years. Her list of accomplishments is long. Among the highlights are eight different state championship wins, one Mid-Atlantic sectional title and a runner-up finish at last year's S3DA Outdoor Target National Championship. She recently added to that list last month when she won the open class for elementary school females at the S3DA 3-D National Championship in Kentucky.
“I’ve been around archery a long time,” Jason Burk said. “And she has something special.”
Burk is the Reading Archery Club president and a head coach for the club's S3DA team, which has produced such talents as Kutztown alum Alexander Edwards, who now competes for Penn College, the lone college in the state that sponsors archery. The club also features 2020 Garden Spot alumnus Chance Taylor and Garden Spot senior Joe Weinhold, both of whom have won state championship events and reached the podium at S3DA 3-D National Championships in recent years. Taylor also won two International Bowhunting Organization World Championships in 2018 and 2019, while Weinhold was an IBO World Championship runner-up a year ago.
But let’s get back to Alivia. Burk is quick to deflect credit for Alivia’s success to her father, Pete Slusser. The son of the late William Slusser, a veteran who fought in the Vietnam War and died in 2012 due to the effects of Agent Orange, Pete Slusser is a Cocalico alum and a Marine veteran who now works in transportation for Four Seasons Produce.
Pete Slusser hunts just about every weekend during the hunting season. When he’s not hunting, he’s competing at archery events, or teaching archery at the Reading Archery Club in Berks County or helping at Swatara Creek Outfitters in Lebanon County.
Pete Slusser has taught Alivia just about everything she knows in archery.
“The last four or five years, I started introducing (Alivia) to hunting,” Pete Slusser said. “She would go out and sit with me.”
Hunting involves a lot of patience. A lot of waiting. To a child, all that waiting might get boring. How does Alivia pass the time?
“I either read a book, sleep, or play games on my dad’s phone,” she said.
In 2018, before she turned 9, Alivia harvested her first whitetail deer with a crossbow.
“I got a two-point buck last year,” she said.
When it comes to archery competitions, it's not easy to shoot at such a high level as Alivia does. Your feet have to be properly spaced apart. Your body needs to have the correct posture. You have to find the right weight for your bow or else your posture will suffer.
“You want to be able to control the bow,” Pete Slusser said. “If it’s too heavy,you need to adjust your equipment to help prevent poor posture or bad habits like bending at the hip or slouching in the shoulders."
Alivia’s bow weighs nearly four pounds. She also pulls the arrow back on a string that has 37 ½ pounds of resistance. The string’s resistance is what propels the arrow forward. To improve your aim requires multiple shots in repetition.
Surely, holding a four-pound bow and pulling back 37 ½ pounds of resistance must make Alivia’s arms sore?
“Yeah. Normally it’s my arms,” she said. “I think it’s from my release. I have a hard piece of skin on my finger because of my release.”
Finally, there’s the mental component. A successful archer must clear the mind on each shot. At competitions, that can sometimes mean doing so on 30 consecutive shots.
Deep breath. Exhale. Pull back the arrow. Focus on the target through the crosshairs. Release the arrow. Repeat.
“Sometimes, young archers can develop target panic and miss,” Pete Slusser said.
Alivia struggled with target panic for the first time in her archery career at an indoor competition in early February at the PA Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.
“You could see the target panic building up,” Pete Slusser recalled. “And then it hit. It hit so bad that when she would draw back, the arrow would go. She was missing targets and becoming very frustrated."
With one arrow to go, Alivia got a pep talk from her dad.
“Just take a deep breath,” Pete Slusser said. “Focus on making your last shot.”
A small crowd on the metal bleachers nearby recognized what was happening and started cheering for Alivia to finish strong.
“Her last shot was a center-punched X at 20 yards,” Pete Slusser said.
In the ensuing weeks, Alivia and her dad went back to the drawing board and worked through her target issues. She has since won separate state championship and national championship archery events. She’s awaiting results from the S3DA Virtual Indoor National Championship in which she competed earlier this month, but more than likely she’ll be at or near the top of those scores.
Others have caught on to Alivia's talents, evidenced by the fact she's now sponsored by Swatara Creek Outfitters, Stokerized Stabilizers and the Reading Archery Club.
She’s in the early stages of blazing a bright trail in archery, even if she doesn’t know where the trail is headed. Her dad will keep her apprised of what’s next on the calendar.
For now, she has class to attend and homework to complete. Her favorite school subject is science, which explains her dream job to care for animals at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida.
She also likes to tumble and flip in gymnastics and cheerleading.
Mother Lucie Slusser describes her daughter’s interests this way: “She’s our little princess, but she digs in the mud, too.”
It just so happens Alivia most enjoys having a bow and arrow in her hands.
“I like that it’s competitive,” Alivia said. “I like shooting.”