"Fire in the hole!" yelled Bruce Sander, a technology teacher at Deer Park High School.
The group of students behind him backed up. And no wonder. Sander had just placed a volleyball-size pumpkin into a catapult to demonstrate the machine's power. He released the throwing arm, and the ill-fated pumpkin hurtled over the school's football goalposts, past the field's 50-yard-line and above bleachers before it splattered into a distant practice field.
Beware the Dark Falcons, Deer Park's catapult team entering this year's Seventh Annual Pumpkin Fling, in which teams compete to send a 3- to 5-pound pumpkin sailing the farthest. There's also a prize for accuracy and recognition for the best-looking team contraption, with extra credit given for a team's costumes. Teams can be families, 4-H clubs, schools or adults, though most teams are from schools. Each coveted winner's trophy has a smiling jack-o'-lantern on top.
The public is invited to view the competition Saturday in Yaphank. "All the parents of all the kids are there," says George Sotiriou, coach of the team from Harbor Country Day School in St. James. "They're hooting and hollering. You've got to be there. It's electrifying."
This year, the Dark Falcons hope to unseat the team that flung the farthest of any youth category last year - which happens to be Harbor Country, at 523 feet, nearly the length of two football fields. The Deer Park kids have increased their catapult from six garage-door springs to 10. They've replaced the wood throwing arm with an aluminum beam. They've also added a stronger winch. And they've mounted their catapult onto a boat trailer that Sander picked up at a garage sale. "This thing shoots crazy," says Noel Alam, 14, a freshman. "The thought that we built this thing from our hands; to see this thing work at all is great."
The Falcons have made black T-shirts with a falcon holding a pumpkin in its talons. They've fashioned their required hard hats into medieval-style helmets. Harbor Country, not to be outdone, has been planning to wear orange hard hats with a pumpkin stem glued to each so it looks like they're sporting pumpkins on their heads.
An average of about 12 teams compete in the event each year, says Vicki Fleming, who runs the contest for the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Kids' teams pay a $25 entry fee; adult teams pay $50. The Long Island contest started after a local farmer saw the "World Championship Punkin Chunkin," which takes place each year in Delaware, featured on TV, she says.
HANDS-ON SCIENCE LESSON
The competition is all in fun - but it helps students learn physics, math and technology at the same time, says Barry Dutchen, science coordinator and teacher at Harbor Country. "They're learning forces, energy and work and the connection between them," he says. They learn about the trebuchet, a French-style catapult. They see in the real world how variables such as angles, speed and weight affect distance.
"It's interesting to see how to build it and how it works," says Sarah Hickerson, 12, a seventh-grader on the Harbor Country team. "It teaches us to work together."
Even though the machines may have been built by a previous year's team, they are upgraded and tinkered with every year. "They'll be under there with the monkey wrench and a crescent wrench," Sotiriou says of his students. His team practices with a 4-pound medicine ball instead of real pumpkins. "It's easier to clean up," Dutchen says. "If we do it here, the soccer team gets really annoyed."
Over at Deer Park High, cleanup is part of the training exercise. Sander sends his team out into the field after three practice flings. "Guys, go get garbage cans," he calls. "Let's pick up pumpkins."
WHAT: Seventh Annual Pumpkin Fling
WHEN|WHERE: 10 a.m. Saturday at the Cornell Cooperative Extension-Suffolk County Farm and Education Center, 350 Yaphank Ave., Yaphank
INFO: Free, but donations appreciated; 631-852-4602; ccesuffolk.org/pumpkin-fling-2/web