NEW PORT RICHEY
The silver catapult with a sleek metal frame and a pair of thick garage door springs was the most imposing.
Competitors warily eyed the contraption, perhaps thinking about what second place would feel like.
"I've messed with garage door springs, and they're not for the layman," said Bill Spissak, whose two sons helped build a rival catapult using surgical tubing for tension. "That's high end. There's a lot of positive energy there."
But neither of those teams won the River Ridge Engineering Academy's inaugural Spring Fling Catapult Contest on Wednesday evening. That honor went to a group of juniors from Sunlake High School who launched a water balloon 95 feet on their third attempt with their wooden torsion catapult.
Their secret? Add more bungee cords between launches.
The team finished with six cords attached to the catapult's arm. For good measure, the students added a couple of extra twists to a separate rope attached to the base of the arm, creating even more tension.
"We were kind of scared," said Sunlake junior Jesse Holloway, referring to the amount of pent-up force.
Their prize: oversized blue sunglasses, antenna headbands — and Warped Tour tickets.
The contest was part fundraiser (each team paid a $100 entry fee) and part outreach event to increase awareness of the program.
Dave Hoffmann, who moved to River Ridge three years ago from Mitchell High School to help create the engineering program, currently teaches 115 kids. There are another 80 applicants for next year. The program is open to any Pasco student, regardless of zoning, and students can join while still attending their regular school. River Ridge Middle is set to begin a feeder program within the next year.
"You need to get kids interested at an early age in this stuff," Hoffmann said, adding that the academy has helped several students land internships and college scholarships. "The program is paying off."
Matt Spissak and his team began building their catapult only three days before the contest. They tried other designs but just couldn't generate enough distance. They finished construction at 11 p.m. Tuesday, just after a last-minute Home Depot run. Most of Wednesday afternoon was spent applying a fresh coat of red paint.
"We got out of school at noon, went to the tuxedo fitting for prom and then sprayed it with paint," Spissak said.
His dad said the students deserve all the credit for designing and building their contraption. He was around "to just make sure everybody comes home with 10 fingers."
The third team was sponsored by PharmaWorks Inc., which is also the business partner for the engineering academy.
That catapult — the one with the garage door springs — looked menacing and likely had the most raw power, but the team suffered a series of mishaps. One launch looked more like a baseball popup instead of a home run. Another time the balloon exploded immediately after it left the trebuchet's sling. That throw measured only 28 feet.
"It's too much force," said company president Peter Buczynsky. "It's just shredding it."
Hoffmann said he hopes to see 15 teams at the next contest.
"You know what we're thinking about doing?" he said. "Having one in the fall with pumpkins."
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.