HANCOCK — For the past year and a half, nothing has stopped Kaylee Bagley’s mission to improve.
From making less than one-third of her attempts in her first free-throw shooting competition to dealing with illnesses on two separate competition days, Bagley has faced her share of obstacles. Despite everything, the 10-year-old Hancock native has continued her drive toward becoming one of America’s best young free-throw shooters.
That journey saw a rewarding conclusion Saturday as she received the international title for her age group in the Knights of Columbus Free Throw Championship. As a reward for beating out thousands of other girls from the United States and Canada, Bagley received a glass trophy commemorating her achievement at a ceremony in Brewer.
“She’s come a long way from when she got started,” said Kaylee’s mother, Christine. “She loves basketball, and she’s just been so determined and stuck with it no matter what.”
Bagley’s first competition came as an 8-year-old 18 months ago. In her first competition at the local level, she made just 7 of 25 from the free-throw line.
Instead of giving up, Kaylee set an ultimate goal for herself. As she and her parents walked toward the car to go home that day, Kaylee told them her goal was to make it to nationals.
“I knew I could make more shots every day if I tried,” Kaylee said. “I knew I could do it if I worked harder and just kept practicing.”
Kaylee said she practiced her free throws for an hour and a half in the buildup to the competition. Her parents made trips with her each day to the Hancock Grammar School gymnasium, where Kaylee would practice free-throw shooting for an hour and a half.
Each day, Kaylee got better and better. Then, on Jan. 28, 2017, she made 18 of her 25 shots to win the 8-9 age group at the state’s Elks Free Throw Hoop Shoot in Bath.
“It was amazing how much better she got in just a short amount of time,” said Kaylee’s father, Shawn. “She went in with her goal of how many she wanted to make, and she kept increasing them every day.”
In 2018, though, Kaylee was faced with some untimely setbacks. When a stomach bug forced her to forego this year’s Elks competition, she was forced to compete in the Knights of Columbus event instead.
Yet the day before the Knights of Columbus district championships, Kaylee fell sick once again. Fortunately, an impending snowstorm that was set to hit eastern Maine the next day forced tournament officials to postpone the event.
“I remember picking her up from school that day, and I said, ‘Honey, they postponed it,’” Christine said. “All of the sudden, I see tears of joy on her face and a look that said, ‘Thank God.’”
Another complicating factor was that the free-throw lines used in the Knights of Columbus competition were slightly farther back than those used in the Elks competition. It also didn’t require other contestants and spectators to sit in complete silence as competitors were shooting.
To get used to the new distance, Kaylee used a tape measure to adjust the distance of the shot she had to make. Her parents and brother, Jacob, helped her adjust to the noise change by making animal sounds and creating other distractions in the background as she shot.
After strong showings at the district championships and regional championships, Kaylee made 23 of 25 at the state championship to claim the Maine title. Her score there was compared to others from the same age group in the United States and Canada to determine the international champion, and after the final results were tallied over the next several weeks, Kaylee was the winner.
“The first week of May, we got a letter from the Knights of Columbus corporate office in Connecticut saying she had placed the highest in her age group,” Shawn said. “She’s wanted Saturday night to come ever since.”
Although Kaylee has been playing basketball since before she was kindergarten, her interest in free-throw competitions came from watching Jacob take part in them. Although she wasn’t old enough to compete when Jacob, now 11, became eligible, seeing him compete inspired her to do so herself.
Despite the fact that Kaylee and Jacob have what Christine called a “rivalry” between the two of them in the sport, Jacob is also his sister’s biggest fan. When Kaylee won her first competition at Elks last year, Jacob was there applauding his sister and yelling her name in celebration. His display was so exuberant that a committee member later recognized him for his passion.
“He came over and pointed to Jacob, and he said, ‘You, young man, are the reason why we do this,’” Christine said. “As a parent, to see both of them recognized like that was very special.”
As for Kaylee, she will continue to play on her AAU team, Black Bear North, as well as in local recreational leagues. If her massive improvement at the free-throw line is any indication of how far she can go, the sky is the limit.
“Your kids can surprise you in amazing ways,” Christine said. “When she made those seven shots the first time, we never thought she would be here then. She proved everybody wrong.”