All good things must come to an end. After seven consecutive state championships, the Valley Stream Central High School District’s rifle team did not make it to the tournament this year, but there was still plenty to celebrate in a transition year for the program.
The team placed second in Nassau County in air rifle, and Kristen Mantel earned individual honors at the state level.
Rifle was one of three sports set to be eliminated by the district last year, but the Board of Education gave it a reprieve, with conditions. Changes included the elimination of .22 smallbore competition, and the use of non-lead bullets in the team’s range at Memorial Junior High School, which meant no more home matches.
Perhaps the biggest change was the addition of new coach Vito Genova, replacing long-time leader Blake McCauley. Genova, a former bowling coach, had some rifle experience on his own but had to learn the rules of competition. He said he “did his homework” to prepare for his new gig.
This year’s varsity team included Mantel, Jurell Wilson and Safraz Bacchus, who all have state championships on their resume, and newcomers Sean Biegler, Tom Steffens and Neil Aliventi.
Although they did not compete as a team in the state tournament on March 1, they were still involved. Mantel placed second in individual competition. Her score of 291 out of 300 tied the previous state record, but the next shooter bested her by a point.
She qualified for the state championship by placing first at the county tournament, with a score of 194 out of 200, in which she hit the center of the target 12 times. Mantel said it felt good to win the county title after missing it by a point last year. This time, the North High School senior topped the second-place finisher by three points.
For the season, Mantel had the second highest shooting average in the county, and Wilson was fourth highest. Wilson, a senior at Central is his second year on the varsity squad, was an alternate at the state competition. He was disappointed the team as a whole did not make it to the state tournament, because he wanted the newcomers to have that experience. “The team did pretty well, given the amount of beginning varsity shooters,” he said.
Bacchus, on the team for the third time, said the biggest difference for him this year was shooting only air rifle. The South High senior said .22 smallbore was his stronger event, but he learned to adjust.
Steffens was on the junior varsity squad for three years and also has shot rifle with the Police Activities League. Fellow North senior and varsity newcomer Biegler added that this year’s opportunity gave him a chance to hone his skills.
The only holdover for next year would be Aliventi, a 10th-grader at Central. Following in the footsteps of his uncle who shot for the district’s team, Aliventi got his start with the PAL rifle team.
Being on varsity, he said, meant facing tougher competition and elevating his game to the next level.
Genova said that he was proud of his team, and he saw marked improvement as the season went on. He described his shooters as stand-up students and well-disciplined athletes. “These kids are all pretty much focused on what they want to do and are mature about it,” he said.
He admitted that it was a little intimidating to take over a team that had won a string of state championships, but the goal is to return to that level next year. Genova said there are several good shooters on the junior varsity squad who can step up and bring the title back to Valley Stream.