ESCANABA - Nine year old Nicole Kamin was cool, calm and collected as she sank seven consecutive free throws Monday afternoon.
This was just a casual practice run with her family by her side, in what has become her second home at the Delta County YMCA. On Saturday, the stakes will be much higher, the crowd much larger.
Kamin is a finalist in the Elk's "Hoop Shoot" National Free Throw Competition in Springfield, Mass.
Nicole is the third area athlete to make it to nationals, joining former participants Trent Stupak of Escanaba and Brianne Weber of Gladstone.
For Nicole, competing on the national stage is something that probably wasn't even on her radar a few short months ago.
The Escanaba third-grader put her hands outward from her chest as she said, "I used to shoot like this; I didn't know how to shoot."
Nicole Kamin poses during a break in practice Monday afternoon at the YMCA of Delta County. The Escanaba third-grader will compete in the Elks National Free Throw “Hoop Shoot” competition in Springfield, Mass. Saturday. (Daily Press photo by Keith Shelton)
Getting involved with the YMCA youth basketball program changed all that.
"Nicole had a coach (Kyle Denewick) at the Y that taught college basketball. He trusted her, and when the other kids knew she could shoot, they'd feed her the ball," said Kamin's mother Michelle.
Then one day, almost on a whim, Nicole's father Ron Kamin read a brief in the Daily Press promoting a local free throw competition and entered Nicole.
"I had to think it over," Kamin said.
Nicole won the local competition, then beat out five other girls from across the Upper Peninsula in the district competition. From there, it was off to Grand Rapids for the state competition where she beat out six girls and advanced to the regional at Angola, Ind.
At Angola, Kamin was matched up against state winners from Ohio and Indiana and was suddenly being treated as sort of a celebrity.
"The Elks have been so gracious," said Michelle Kamin. "They keep you fully informed, they fund all trips - whether it's gas or a flight - lodging, food, they have games, activities, they transport you from the hotel to the games. So many people have told us 'we're doing this next year.'"
At each stop, the contestants are required to shoot a best of 10 round, followed by a best of 15.
Ron Kamin recalled watching the Indiana and Ohio winners in practice and for a moment, thought his daughter might be in over her head.
"Those other two girls didn't miss a single shot in practice. They were both taller than Nicole and they hit everything. Nicole meanwhile hit about 20 percent of her shots," he said.
"But all competitors her age have to jump shoot. Here at the Y, they taught Nicole how to use her legs. Even the Indiana and Ohio girls were jumping."
Michelle Kamin described the high pressure situation Nicole had to compete under.
"Competition is very quiet. You can literally hear yourself breathe. The doors are monitored, there's no phones, no clapping," she said.
Under such seemingly stressful conditions, the taller girls from Indiana and Ohio faltered a bit. In the first 10 shots, they shot 7 of 10 and 8 of 10 respectively. Nicole hit 9 of 10. In the second 15, Nicole ended up being tied with one of the girls, so a five shot tiebreaker was put into effect. The first girl made 4 of 5, then Nicole hit all five shots.
"It was nervewracking," said Ron Kamin.
Asked if she felt the same, Nicole emphatically nodded yes.
"When people are around me watching, I get better," she said, noting the silence of the big stage was less than ideal.
The victory was far from expected.
"She kept saying all the way home, 'I can't believe I won, I can't believe I won!', said Michelle Kamin.
Nicole has barely had time for it to sink in that she will be competing on the national stage later this week, let alone brag about it. With a humble demeanor, she modestly nodded yes when asked if she was going to Springfield to win, but more importantly, she is going to the site of the Basketball Hall of Fame to see the sights. Traveling is Nicole's favorite aspect of all of this.
At nationals, Nicole will go up against 11 regional winners. There will be 72 participants, 12 from each of the three age groups (8-9, 10-11 and 12-13.) Boys and girls compete separately.
"To see those kids shoot, it's just amazing. They don't miss. Only when their nerves get to them, do they miss," said Ron Kamin. "One of the directors told us that at the beginning of this thing, 2 and-a-half to 3 million kids were involved. Now there's 72 left."
Nicole has spent nearly every day at the YMCA since the end of March honing her shot along with her brothers Craig, 12, and Derek, 15. They teach her the fundamentals of ball handling. She gives them shooting pointers. Though through it all, Nicole has never let the pressure of national competition get in the way of fun.
"She makes a lot of friends at these things. They bond and have fun, but it's tough having to compete the next day. You want to see your friend win, but there can only be one winner. Nicole sees these other girls in tears and feels bad," said Michelle Kamin.
Though the stakes are high, Nicole has a way of not letting high expectations wear her down.
"The Indiana and Ohio girls never missed in practice. But when the nerves kick in, Nicole beats them all," said Ron Kamin.
As skilled as Nicole may be at shooting the basketball, fundamentals are a different story. She is still learning the ropes. In fact, basketball isn't even the young athlete's favorite sport.
Nicole plays pitcher, shortstop and second base in Little League and Escanaba Heartbreakers travel softball team.
In response to being called quite an athlete, Nicole shyly mentions, "I got an A in gym," then after enduring a taunt from her brother Craig, shot back with, "an A-plus."
"During the YMCA program, Nicole learned some things, like dribbling without looking and how to set a pick," said Michelle Kamin. "We hope as she grows, she'll get good instruction and get different points from a variety of people. She loves basketball and maybe we'll get her on a travel team next year. She can't be in the Civic Center league until fifth grade. But we're very happy with the Y instructor."
Nicole has already won a trophy larger than her, as well as a ton of swag - everything from warm-up uniforms to medals to red-white-and-blue Elks basketballs. If she wins Saturday, her name will be engraved at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. She would also take home another trophy and plaque.
A live web feed of the Saturday competition will be available at www.elks.org