Montville's Sloan, headed to third Junior Olympics for riflery, has the will to succeed

Montville coach Steve Rocketto watches his star shooter Eric Sloan during a competition with Grasso Tech on Feb. 10 at the Quaker Hill Rod and Gun Club. Sloan is returning to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in April for what will be his third Junior Olympics.

Montville - Eric Sloan, a junior on the Montville High School rifle team, is on the firing line at the Quaker Hill Road & Gun Club on a recent afternoon, a half-hour to get off 20 shots, five each from four positions with a .22 caliber smallbore target rifle.

Sloan wears a specially made jacket, a visor and gloves, as well as ear plugs and blinders on the sides of his face to block out the surrounding cacophony. He approaches the standing position first, breathes deeply and then barely at all. His arms, supporting the approximate 10-pound rifle, are still.

When he fires, it's with scarcely a movement, the sound of a single shot belying the trigger which never seems to move.

"You have to will your body not to move," Montville coach Steve Rocketto said. "You need the ability to have enough control over your body not to move. It's one sport that doesn't put a premium on being seven feet tall."

Instead of movement, jumping higher, throwing harder, skiing faster, Sloan, 16, tries to achieve the opposite.

He does it exceptionally well.

Sloan is the defending state high school rifle champion, finishing last season with the highest average in Connecticut. He is in the running again this year, competing with Brigitte Curcio of Bunnell for top honors - both tied the state record by firing 199 out of 200 during their careers - and has been named all-state twice.

Sloan is also a three-time qualifier for the Junior Olympics, which will bring him to the Olympic Shooting Center in April, part of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He has aspirations of shooting at the Division I level in college, perhaps for Ohio State, where there are already two Connecticut athletes, or West Virginia.

He finished with a 196 last week at Quaker Hill, as the Indians - a club team at Montville, although it competes against varsity teams from the Constitution State Conference - defeated Grasso Tech.

In that match, Sloan took on the standing position before firing a perfect score of 50 from the difficult kneeling position. He finished with sitting, then the prone position, where shooters lie flat on the ground.

On a paper target 50 feet away, the competitors fired one shot at each of 10 bull's-eyes. Two spots in the middle are reserved for practice shots, referred to as "sights." The 30 minutes passed quickly, with Sloan down to five minutes for his final five shots.

"I did pretty well," Sloan said following the match. "I'm working on my time management. It takes a little time to breathe and relax and stuff and get a good sight picture. You barely breathe because you don't want to get your heart rate up.

"I like it because it's settling. You work on your breathing. I don't think about anything else. People say shooting is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.

"I first started competing when I was 8."

***

Jennifer (Smith) Sloan, Eric's mom, said she was sitting on the steps one day watching her older brothers shoot when Rocketto, an instructor at Quaker Hill, asked her if she wanted to try it. Instead of hitting the target, she shot the clip that was holding the top of the target. Rocketto, who would later coach her son, replaced it, unfazed.

A 1982 graduate of New London High School, Jennifer competed there for the rifle team.

"I used to be able to compete in every match and didn't have to sit on the bench like I did for all the other sports," she said. "I was always eager to play. My senior year, my very last match I broke the team record with a 196 out of 200. Eric shot that in his very first high school match. I told him, 'I think you're off to a good start.'"

Jennifer and her husband Mark were both coached by Rocketto as members of the Quaker Hill junior program. Mark now shoots in a pistol league and works at the gun shop at Blue Trail Range in Wallingford, where he helps coach. Jennifer, meanwhile, is a member of the National Guard - activated during Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s - and was once a member of the guard's all-star team for smallbore shooting.

"I'm really proud of Eric. I'm glad he took up the same interest," said Jennifer Sloan, who calls shooting family-friendly competition. "A lot of people don't know it as a sport. There's a taboo that's associated with the word 'guns.'

"(Riflery) teaches you to have a lot of patience, to have a lot of focus. It teaches you that the match isn't always over until you fire your last shot, to concentrate on the one that's in the barrel. It helps him. He wants to go to college, so his focus is on his studies. He's pretty goal-oriented when it comes to that."

***

At Montville, Eric Sloan shoots in relative obscurity. Because the rifle team is considered a club - for which Rocketto volunteers his services as coach - Sloan has never even earned a varsity letter.

In April, however, he'll find himself in Colorado Springs. If the Olympics is Broadway, the Olympic Shooting Center, the third largest indoor shooting facility in the world, is at the very least Off-Broadway.

"They have all electrical targets," Sloan said. "It adds up your score for you. … Going there could qualify me for the junior development team."

Also, this summer, he will attend the USA Shooting Rifle and Pistol National Championships for all ages at Fort Benning, Ga., in June and the NRA National Smallbore Championships in Bristol, Ind., in July. At the latter, he was part of three national championship teams in 2013, joining other junior shooters in representing the Connecticut State Rifle and Revolver Association.

To be prepared, Sloan practices nearly every day at home with his air rifle, in addition to twice a week at the Quaker Hill range during the school year and three times a week during the summer. He also works out at G's Fitness in Waterford, improving his core strength to enable him to lift his rifle for great lengths of time during matches.

Back at Montville, there are two more matches this season for the Indians (4-2), including Wednesday's against Wilcox Tech.

The Connecticut High School Rifle League, which sanctions the matches - not the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, as with other high school sports - will hold a state championship on Feb. 26 at Blue Trail. Competing will be the winners of the state's three conferences, plus two wild-card teams to be chosen based on team average.

If the Indians don't qualify for the state meet, the official rifle season will be over. Several of the program's 15 shooters, however, stay on to compete throughout the spring and summer, including the trip to the nationals in Indiana.

And they will still have Rocketto, who competed at New London High and Boston University and still does at the age of 71, to lead them.

Rocketto began the program at Grasso Tech, where he was a longtime science teacher, and also started the Montville program when he became a physics teacher there following his retirement from Grasso. Rocketto calls riflery a "lifetime sport."

"I played other sports for one or two seasons, but it wasn't my thing, t-ball, soccer," said Sloan, who hopes to major in mechanical engineering in college. "I used to do judo for a few years, but it got in the way with shooting.

"Shooting brings my family together. We enjoy it."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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