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It's fall and the pumpkins are flying

Conditions were clear but breezy for the annual fall fling Sunday at the Great Pumpkin Farm, with 15 schools competing for top honors in use of a trebuchet.

The trebuchet is an enhanced catapult, an elegant combination of simple machines connected to a rope and sling. In this competition, the things the slings fling are, of course, pumpkins.

Actually, the Pumpkin Catapult Contest involves a virtual barrage of pumpkins, all in the six-to-eight-pound range. Weather conditions can affect the density of the gourds and this year they were on the smaller size, but these teams were good and made adjustments. Teams compete for high score and cumulative points in distance, getting three throws and for high score in accuracy aiming at a castle-shaped target 150 feet away.

By the end of the first heat of eight teams on Sunday morning, the chase was on. No team had managed to even hit the castle, so that contest was wide open.

However, the techies from Depew High School has tossed a pumpkin an amazing 483 feet, 86 feet farther than the 2015 winning throw by the team from Pioneer Central. This would be the shot to beat for the seven afternoon teams.

The Nichols team threw steady and straight but couldn't break out of the 200s with its distance shots. The students did achieve what the morning crews didn't, though: one of their missiles banged into the 25-point section of the castle wall.

That would be good enough for a win this year. All the other shots from all the other teams either flew past the ramparts or smashed harmlessly to the ground in front of the walls. Spectators, teachers and students agreed that the variables of weather, weight and pumpkin shape make accuracy the toughest challenge of the day.

Angelica Tobe of Hamburg High School puts the pumpkin into the sling. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Angelica Tobe of Hamburg High School puts the pumpkin into the sling. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Pioneer teacher Don Kress, who has been bringing teams for 10 years, agreed that calculations get the artillery only so far under changing conditions; the rest is luck. He said he has seen pumpkins get in the door only twice since the competition began, once with Pioneer and once by Nichols.

The distance throws are as energizing as the target shooting is frustrating. Teams clamber around their wooden contraptions to adjust angles and reorganize the weights. They lubricate tracks and tighten ropes and slings, or maybe loosen them, and then everyone stands back when they are ready to rip, just in case of a "misfire."

Safety is a top concern for the competition. The throwing arms have two locking mechanisms to prevent accidental release. Axles must be steel or other metal so they don't snap.

Even with a brisk side wind, this was turning into a good year for several teams. Hamburg saw one pumpkin soar high and long over the field full of orange shrapnel, only to have it drop at 470 feet, a distance that in other years would have been a winner. Pioneer, champs for three years straight, got to 449 feet twice and came in second for cumulative score.

[Related: Clarence farmer wins World Pumpkin Weigh-Off with 1,964.5-pound pumpkin]

In the end, Depew's top toss was part of a record-setting and winning combined total of 1,396 feet.

Although the winners also receive cash prizes, winning really isn't the point here. Larry Cook, a technology teacher at Pioneer, said the project is a true learning experience. The Principles of Technology program is affiliated with Rochester Institute of Technology and students can get college credit for some of their coursework.

Kress said the school has been seeing more girls in the program, and he'd like even more.

"They think differently from the boys," he said, which can be an advantage.

The out-of-classroom experiences are a real bonus, he said.

"We go to Tech Wars and Vex Robotics," he said. "We love doing competitions."

A pumpkin shot by Nichols students bounces into the field after landing more than 100 feet out. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A pumpkin shot by Nichols students bounces into the field after landing more than 100 feet out. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

That spirit can be contagious. Even though the Genesee Valley team wound up spiking its distance shots instead of sending them sailing, technology teacher Caitlin Bower says they will be back.

Bower teaches a "STEAM" class – "That's STEM plus Arts," she explained – and this was her kids' first year building a trebuchet.

"We came last year and just watched," Bower said. "This year we decided to compete. They have loved it. We're a small school in Allegany County and we're doing a lot of things."

They were still getting the final version of their machine together Thursday night and Bower estimated some of her crew was running on maybe four hours' sleep. She was proud of their effort, and proud of the fact there are four girls on the team.

The Hamburg team also had a satisfying outing, even without a big win. The competition is an extracurricular project for these students, all members of the recently revived Technology Club. Tech teacher Nicholas Zona said that Hamburg took a three-year hiatus when the tech program waned, but they were back this year with a group of mostly eighth and ninth graders, plus one junior, to get the trebuchet back on track.

"The last time I ran this, the team was all seniors," Zona said.

That helped when it came time to load the circular weights onto the rods. Angelica Tober, an eighth grader, said they have 14 45-pound weights, plus four smaller ones, that they shift for balance and power.

The other teams competing were Clarence, Henrietta Lewis, North Tonawanda, Oakfield Alabama East and West, Williamsville South, Alden and Newfane. The BOCES team from Harkness Career & Technical had to bow out; both their machines broke before the weekend, but a team from Buffalo Academy of Science was a late entry to round out the field.

The Great Pumpkin Farm sponsors the event and awards a total of $2,800 in prize money. Teams also get T-shirts and pumpkin-topped trophies for their efforts.

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