ADAMS -- When Sharaya Keele was born -- six weeks premature, with a left foot that points inward -- doctors never expected her to reach 5 feet, 6 inches tall by age 11. Now, they expect her to grow to 6 feet.
Nor could they have known that, despite her obstacles, she would become an athlete. Now, she's competing in the state championship of a national free-throw shooting competition.
On Saturday, Sharaya and her family will travel to Marlborough, where she will compete against five other state district tournament winners in the Elks National Hoop Shoot Competition, a nerve-wracking best-of-25 free throw contest.
"I always get butterflies in the car," Sharaya said Thursday. But, when it comes time to compete, she has nerves of steel.
Sharaya, a Cheshire Elementary School student, won the first local round of the competition, held in Adams, in November. Then it was on to a larger district contest in Springfield, where she bested five other athletes. If she wins the state competition on Saturday, her family will make the hike to Maine for a regional competition, and then possibly on to the national tournament in Springfield.
The tournament's structure is simple. Each round of the tournament takes place in two steps. Contestants are broken down into age-based divisions, and each first shoots 10 free throws, then a round of 15. The best score out of 25 wins that stage of the tournament. But, as many failed contestants know, the free throw is harder than it looks.
Those close to Sharaya have come to learn there's little reason to bet against her.
"She was born six weeks premature, and now she's taller than me," Traci Keele, her mother, joked.
You wouldn't know it from watching her play, but Sharaya couldn't walk until she was 3 years old. She spent the first part of her life in Pittsfield four days a week undergoing physical therapy. Now her best physical therapy is out on the court. Last year was also the first Sharaya, who has epilepsy, hasn't had a seizure since she was just months old. She wears a special medical bracelet on the court at all times, and still sees a neurologist at Bay State Medical Center regularly.
The secret to her free-throw shooting success is an age old recipe of desire, love for the game, and practice.
"We do basketball six days a week," Traci said.
After coming in fourth place in last year's local round of the tournament, Sharaya has improved.
"I have found a rhythm," she said. Three dribbles, then shoot.
Sharaya is also the only contestant who doesn't watch her opponents shoot. She turns the other way, focused on herself.
"I don't watch," she said. "I just sit there and twiddle my thumbs."
Sharaya plays in a local league and is coached by her father, Raymond Keele, a former player himself at Taconic High School. She's also a member of a travel team that plays in tournaments all around the Northeast. Somehow, she finds time to also participate in a travel soccer league in the offseason. Don't tell her basketball coach, but she actually likes soccer a bit more.
Though focused on this weekend's tournament, Sharaya's already set long-term goals.
"I want to play for Hoosac [Valley High School], and I want to play for UMass," she said.
This weekend, Sharaya is playing for her great-grandmother, Fanny Cooper. And don't bet against her.