Riflery champs are disciplined and versatile

Valley Stream District's Danielle Cuomo pauses during competition

Valley Stream District's Danielle Cuomo pauses during competition against Massapequa in the Nassau high school rifle match. (December 10, 2012) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Aspiring chefs, musicians and artists, with a few math and chemistry enthusiasts thrown in.

And they shot like a bunch of girls!

"That's the biggest compliment you can get in our sport,'' Massapequa senior Chris Esposito said. "It takes patience and concentration, so girls, believe it or not, excel at this stuff.''

That would be riflery.

And believe it or not, Danielle Cuomo, a soft-spoken AP chemistry student, is the state's best high school marksman, err, woman.

The senior shot a record-tying 291 in leading Valley Stream District to a seventh consecutive air rifle title in the regional championships at West Point this month. And Massapequa, with its own roster full of eclectic brainiacs, captured its first small-bore championship since 1996 in the tournament.

Cuomo, performing on her future stamping grounds after recently committing to West Point, helped Valley Stream District rack up 1,138 points, also a state mark.

"It gives me goose bumps thinking about how successful we've been,'' said Cuomo, one of five girls on her team. She was inspired to pick up the sport by her mother, a former high school rifle competitor.

Sean Wraith (286), Melissa Schmidt (282), Kristen Mantel (279) and Jurell Wilson (274) also propelled Valley Stream District, which returned only two starters from last year's team.

Esposito (283), Thomas Sarant (276), Matt KcKeown (275) and Erin Kohler (258) led Massapequa in small bore, a three-position discipline. Sophomore Julie Kapuvari's 267 was tops among the alternates.

Nassau also took the sectional all-star title, behind Freeport's Kiara Medina and Sydney Goldschlag of Bellmore-Merrick.

Girls have a physiological edge in riflery, Valley Stream District coach Blake McCauley said. Females have a lower center of balance and "a lot of girls are able to rest their elbow on their hip'' for added stability.

"There's something really cool about girls doing so well in riflery at this level,'' Massapequa coach Alex Norden said. His 12-person roster includes four girls. "It bends the stereotypes ever so slightly.''

Both teams, in fact, readily shuck the outside perceptions of their sport and its competitors.

"Some of my friends think we're outside shooting wildly or hunting animals," said Wraith, a junior Olympian and former boy scout. "What we are, really, is precision paper-punchers. It's not like video games and we're not crazy, violent people.''

Safety is paramount, McCauley said. Before tryouts, the students are required to pass a safety course and the teams compete in an enclosed and controlled environment. The object of the sport, essentially, is to hit small targets on sheets of paper 33 feet away using a .22-caliber rifle.

"It's mostly a mental exercise,'' Norden said. "That's why the best competitors are bright, well-rounded kids who have discipline in other aspects of life.''

Massapequa freshman Joe Fiola has had his art displayed at Hofstra, and nine of his teammates are musicians or singers. Kohler thinks there is a definite correlation.

"It takes a great deal of focus and fine-tuning to succeed at either,'' said the junior, who plays several instruments, including viola and piano. "We're pretty much a riflery-slash-concert band over here.''

Cooking, too, requires similar skills and attributes, Wilson said. "In the kitchen or on the range, you have to be steady and precise,'' the junior said. "If that's off [in riflery], you get bad scores. In cooking, people will say your food stinks.''

His teammate Schmidt, for example, said she enjoys whipping up delectable banana bread cupcakes with jelly in the center and peanut butter frosting.

And, boy, does she shoot like a girl.

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