Out of 18 counties throughout the state, Harford Christian School representing Harford County came out on top during last week's 22nd Maryland Envirothon.
The team's journey to their big win was full of obstacles and a few surprises this year — the second time Harford Christian has won at the state level.
In May, the school in Darlington won Harford County's annual Envirothon competition for the sixth year in a row and immediately began preparing for the statewide competition, which was held June 20 and 21 at St. James School of Maryland in Washington County.
"It was very hot," Harford Christian's Envirothon coach Ada Stambaugh said. "It was all outdoors and [almost] 100 degrees."
The team, consisting of students Brianna Coleman, Hunter Howell, Joshua Mohr, Emily Stricklin and Luke Tittel, prepares in between each competition by studying soils, forestry, wildlife and aquatics — four categories in each Envirothon.
This year, however, the students had to train without an advisor on my occasions, as Stambaugh was taking care of her ill husband, who died of cancer in May.
"They're a pretty strong team," she commented. "The last few months they did training on their own."
Still, Stambaugh believes her team felt confident walking into the state competition.
"I think they felt pretty prepared with knowing there were other teams just as equipped," she said. "There was some anticipation of whether they would do well or not over teams, but they felt they would answer the questions fairly well."
It was a close race between Harford, Montgomery County and St. Mary's County teams and at one point, Stambaugh recalled, her group wondered if they even placed in the top three.
"We really thought we did not win," the advisor said. As the judges read which teams had the best overall scores in each category, Harford Christian's name was never read.
When it was time to announce the top three counties, however, that's when the disbelief kicked in.
"You don't really see a team winning without a high score in one of the categories," Stambaugh explained.
St. Mary's County came in third, scoring 429 points out of 500. Then, in an unprecedented moment, the judges declared that there was a tie for first and second place.
In case of a tie, there is a question in the fifth topic test. The category is always a different environmental issue and this year was low impact development.
Whichever team scored the highest on that particular question would be declared the champion.
When Montgomery County was named second place winner and Harford Christian the 2012 Maryland Envirothon champs, Stambaugh said everyone was "in total shock."
Along with the title, the team won a trophy and $500 was awarded to each group member.
Just because the students are on their summer break — four out of five team members graduated and will attend college in the fall — doesn't mean they're slacking off.
Quite the contrary, Stambaugh pointed out.
On Monday, she said the group was training at her home all day for the fifth topic at the national competition, which is July 22 through 27 at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa.
She explained that for nationals, each group is given a problem to solve with nothing but notes they take on the possible topic, paper, pencils and poster board to then give an oral presentation to a panel of judges.
During the actual competition, the groups will be sequestered for six to seven hours and then will give their presentations the day after.
To prepare, the Maryland Envirothon gave Harford Christian a practice question and will go through a similar process, then present their practice presentation to a state committee on July 9 at the school to receive feedback and constructive criticism.
Stambaugh said the group will also go through extra training on the categories.
"If you don't get extra training you won't be prepared," she said.
Win or lose, Harford Christian's Envirothon team has learned valuable real-life experiences in fields that many of them will pursue in college and as a career.
"I think it provides a clearer picture because they work with professionals that do the type of thing they're talking about," Stambaugh said of each Envirothon competition.
The proud coach said she has seen past team members go on to study ecology, biology and environmental science and do great things. In the end, that's worth more than a trophy.