More Than Free Throws: 2024 Hoop Shoot National Finals Recap
Basketballs bouncing. Hearts pounding. Fans watching with bated breath.

The tension at the 2024 Elks Hoop Shoot National Finals was palpable, but for the 72 National Finalists, it was all just noise—or perhaps, a lack thereof.

From April 18 to 21, Hoop Shoot National Finalists, their families, and Elks traveled to Chicago for a weekend that was far more than just a free throw contest. Though the National Finalists knew they had to compete against each other on Saturday, that didn’t stop them from making friends and enjoying each other’s company.

“I think it’s a good experience for everybody,” says Rylan Buhr, a National Finalist sponsored by Sheboygan, Wis., Lodge No. 299. “You get to meet different ages, people from everywhere. And it’s fun, super fun.”

From the opening tip-off of the weekend, it was nearly impossible for the Finalists to mistake where they were. As they walked into the main entrance of the two-million-square-foot Chicago Hilton, with the city’s skyline blanketing their peripheral vision, the Finalists were greeted with Hoop Shoot logos on the walls, basketball shaped balloons, and the smiles of Regional Directors and Elks National Foundation staff.

“It’s really impressive how important they make the kids feel,” says Nisa Aragon, mother of National Finalist EJ Aragon, sponsored by Las Vegas, N.M., Lodge No. 408. “It’s an amazing opportunity to travel and create new memories with your family.”

The 72 Finalists who advanced to Chicago didn’t get there by accident. Over the course of several months, they won their Lodge, District, State, and Regional levels. For many, advancing to Chicago was once a distant dream or something they didn’t even know was possible when they competed in a gym class competition.

When they walked through the doors of the Hilton, it was a dream come true.

“I didn’t think much about it, but then I was like ‘hold on, I’m going to Chicago, this is crazy,’” says Blake Zimmerman, a National Finalist sponsored by Greater Spokane, Wash., Lodge No. 228. “There are only 12 kids [in my division] who get this opportunity, so I was really surprised and amazed.”

Making it to the biggest stage the Hoop Shoot has to offer wasn’t the only dream that came true during the weekend. Every Finalist received their very own trading cards, complete with fun facts and pictures of themselves. Inspired by professional trading cards, these served as a great reminder of the incredible achievements of the Finalists—and were a great way to make friends.

Age, height or accomplishment, it didn’t matter: Finalists were eager to give out their cards to competitors and supporters alike. Eight-year-olds traded with 13-year-olds, kids over six feet tall traded with those under four feet, and even the Regional Directors, program staff and Elroy T. Elk traded cards with the Finalists.

A Weekend for Champions

The trading cards were a highlight of the weekend, but they were only the beginning of the festivities. After Finalists checked in and received other Hoop Shoot gear from the FanZone, including their books of Best sWishes, well-wishes sent in from family and friends, and exclusive National Finals t-shirts, they were given the chance to put their knowledge to the test by participating in family-friendly trivia. Questions like, “what is the biggest planet?” and “what NBA team logo is this?” were asked, and the full room of Finalists and families were happy to answer.

“Most people, they don’t get to do this much stuff,” says Caroline Kooman, a National Finalist sponsored by Northglenn, Colo., Lodge No. 2438. “It’s really fun to get these experiences.”

The free throw line is a very familiar place for every National Finalist, but in a new environment, even the most familiar place can feel foreign. Friday morning, competitors got the chance to shake off the rust and get re-acquainted with the free throw line by attending their session at the practice gym. The competitors weren’t the only ones shaking off the rust, though—members of the Hoop Shoot Alumni Advisory Board, aka the BackBoard, prepared for their role in the contest by catching the shots that were made or chasing down the shots that were missed. With the amount of practice the National Finalists put in, it’s safe to say the BackBoard did not have to do much chasing.

Before Hoop Shoot history was on the line, the Friday FunFest brought those in attendance to a piece of Chicago history: watching a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The second oldest stadium in Major League Baseball, Wrigley is a staple for tourists, baseball fans, and anyone that wants to enjoy a nice summer day. Though the weather made this game feel closer to Christmas than to summer, Finalists, families, and Elks enjoyed the action together.

"We had a blast at Wrigley Field,” says Youth Programs Coordinator Nathan Springberg. “Taking pictures with the Wrigley marquee, seeing the ivy on the wall, and enjoying the sounds of the ballpark was a perfect lead up into the tensions of Saturday morning."

To promote rest on the eve of the big day, the FanZone followed up the ballgame with a showing of “Space Jam.” Once again, the FanZone was packed with families, perhaps looking to basketball superstar Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny for inspiration. The next morning, these same families watched a different set of superstars on the basketball court.

The Wait is Over

As they arrived at Wintrust Arena, the home of the WNBA Chicago Sky and the DePaul Blue Demons, the National Finalists were welcomed by seeing their own trading cards on the jumbotron. Once they were given the chance to shoot warm-up shots and familiarize themselves with the new space, it was finally the time everyone was waiting for.

The lights turned down and the song used to introduce Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls turned up. The 8-9-year-old Finalists ran onto the court, canopied by a tunnel of the volunteers that made the weekend possible. Some held their breaths, anxious to get started. Others breathed sighs of relief, happy the long wait was over.

As the first Finalists stepped up to the line—boys on one end, girls on the other—the 10,000-seat arena was silent, outside of the occasional bouncing ball or pounding heart. With all eyes on them, six competitors were able to dig deep, unleash their grit, and rise above the rest. On the girls’ side, Pressley Page, sponsored by Kingfisher, Okla., Lodge No. 2416, and Ainsley Weaver, sponsored by Chillicothe, Ohio, Lodge No. 52, were tied at 24. Fellow Ohioan Parker Moeller, sponsored by Mercer County, Ohio, Lodge No. 2170, and Marcuz Johnson Jr., sponsored by Shreveport, La., Lodge No. 122, were also tied at 24 on the boy’s side.

Weaver and Moeller didn’t let the added pressure get to them, as they stepped back up to the line, made all five of their extra shots, and collected their National Champion medals.

While Blake Ensfield, sponsored by South Haven, Mich., Lodge No. 1509, ran away with the contest in the Girls 10-11 division, Beckett Jilka, sponsored by Hoxie, Kan., Lodge No. 2415, posted the only perfect score of the day en route to his national title in the Boys 10-11 division. Jilka’s perfect 25/25 also earned him the Emile Brady Award, given to those with perfect scores, and the Getty Powell Award, given to the top competitors in the boys and girls divisions.

Just like the beginning of the contest, the final divisions of the day required more than 25 shots to determine a winner. After they both made 24 shots in regulation, Ayden Birch, sponsored by Midwest City, Okla., Lodge No. 1890, defeated Blake Zimmerman in a five-shot shootoff in the Boys 12-13 division. The longest shootoff of the day took place in the Girls 12-13 division, when Ava Cumicek, sponsored by Green Bay, Wis., Lodge No. 259, outlasted Olivia Brogdon, sponsored by Sheridan, Wyo., Lodge No. 520, in 15 extra shots.

Because they both made 24 shots, Weaver and Ensfield finished the contest with yet another shootoff, this time for the girls’ Getty Powell Award. With all eyes on her once again, the 9-year-old Weaver made all 10 of her extra shots and joined Jilka as the other Getty Powell Award winner. As winners of the award, Weaver and Jilka will travel to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for the Class of 2024 Enshrinement Weekend. Additionally, all six Frank Hise National Champions will have their names displayed in an exhibit at the Hall of Fame.

You Can Be Great

After a long day of free throws, the National Finalists were honored at the Awards Banquet. While the newly crowned national champions were celebrating, those who came up short likely felt some sense of sadness—but they weren’t alone. Keynote speaker and head coach of the Northwestern University Men’s Basketball team, Chris Collins, shared that same feeling when he came in fourth place at the 1984 Hoop Shoot National Finals.

"I'm 50 years old now, and I competed in this when I was a 9-year-old kid," said Collins. "Coming in here brought back memories of all the times I practiced, all the competitions I went through, and coming up short in the National Finals."

Though Collins didn’t achieve his goal, he picked himself up, went back to work, and achieved greatness.

"For all of you going forward," Collins said, “I hope this has shown you that when you put your mind to something, you can be great in whatever it is. I was a kid who wanted to be great—and now here I am."

Whether they achieved their goal or not, the 72 National Finalists all have what it takes to be great—and should walk away feeling like champions.

The Elks have been unleashing gritty kids through the Hoop Shoot program for more than 50 years. For 2024-25, the Elks National Foundation allocated more than $1.5 million to fund the program. For videos, news from the court, and more information about the Hoop Shoot, visit

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