Harford Christian School won its seventh consecutive Harford Envirothon Wednesday, the culmination of weeks of studying, but the students' coach warned them they couldn't rest long with the state competition about six weeks away.
"[There are] volumes of more information they have to put in their head between now and the middle of June," said coach Ada Stambaugh, who also teaches biology, environmental science, physiology and animal behavior at the Darlington school.
Harford Christian won the Maryland Envirothon last year – its second state win since 2008 – and placed seventh in the national finals, competing with students from across North America.
Harford County teams have won eight of the past 22 state competitions. Harford Christian is the second-winningest team at the county level behind Joppatowne High School, which won eight non-consecutive times between 1992 and 2001.
"It was a lot of pressure to win county, since we had just come back from such a good run last year," said team captain Hunter Howell.
Hunter, a senior, is the only veteran member of the team's five-person A squad, which will compete at the state level. The other members are junior Gracie Shannahan, sophomore Danielle Reifer, senior Dani Fiedler and junior Maddie Feustel.
"They put in a lot of hard work, and we managed to pull through," he said of his teammates.
Wednesday was the second and final round of the county competition, which was held at the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Abingdon and involved eight local schools – Harford Christian was the only non-public school competing.
Harford Christian had a healthy rivalry with Havre de Grace High School going into Wednesday's competition.
Havre de Grace had taken first place in the first round and was ahead of Harford Christian by only a few points.
"It was anybody's ball game today," Harford Christian's Stambaugh said. "Havre de Grace very well could have been the champion."
Students had to show their expertise in five fields: aquatics, forestry, soils, wildlife and a Fifth Topic. Envirothon organizers select a different Fifth Topic each year, basing it on environmental issues affecting the state where the national competition will be held.
This year's nationals will take place in Montana, and the Fifth Topic was rangeland management. The students had made oral presentations on the Fifth Topic during the first round, and spent Wednesday going from station to station throughout the Leight Estuary Center grounds, completing written exams on all five topics.
The exams required students to identify various local plants and animals, measure trees and write out how they would solve scenarios such as ensuring they had enough grassland to feed a herd of livestock.
The teams' scores Wednesday were added to their scores from the first round, giving them a total score out of 600.
Harford Christian scored 540, and Havre de Grace was just 14 points shy with 526; North Harford High School came in third with 425.5 points.
"They're getting better and better every year and they're really showing a lot of commitment to the program, and I wish them a lot of luck in the coming years, after I leave," Hunter Howell said of Havre de Grace.
Havre de Grace team captain John Biondo said he and his teammates "were really hoping to come out on top," and knock off Harford Christian.
"It was pretty intense, almost like a rivalry," said Biondo, a senior. "We wanted Havre de Grace to be the first public school to [win]."
Havre de Grace's team was heavy with seniors.
"It's kind of our last hurrah," said Anthony Alvarez, a member of the B squad.
Each school's team was divided into A and B squads, similar to varsity and junior-varsity sports teams. The A squad represents at the higher levels, but the B squad competes at the local level because those students can serve as alternates if any member of the A squad cannot compete.
Havre de Grace's B squad took first place at its level, with North Harford coming in second and Harford Christian in third.
"They've always been extremely tough competition," Anthony said of Harford Christian. "We're still excited with how we did."
The Havre de Grace team also won certificates for achievement in the individual soil and Fifth Topic exam categories – they tied Harford Christian for first in the soils category – and was recognized for its first-place win in the Fifth Topic oral presentation.
Certificates in the forestry, aquatics and wildlife categories went to Harford Christian. In the oral presentation awards, Harford Christian took second and North Harford third.
Harford Technical High School won the Tom Taffton Spirit Award, plus the Achievement Award for the most-improved score from last year's competition.
Bel Air, C. Milton Wright, Joppatowne and Fallston High Schools also competed this year.
The Envirothon is sponsored locally by the Harford County Soil Conservation District. Patrick Jones, Envirothon coordinator for the district, said a number of prominent scientists and educators in the respective fields come to support the competition and administer the exams.
"We get a very good team together to do this for the kids," said Jones, who is an engineering associate at the Soil Conservation District.
Glenn Dudderar, a retired professor of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University, serves as chairman of the local Envirothon steering committee.
He said the students are "taking tests at the [college] freshman and sophomore level, at least."
"They're really impressive," he continued.
Harford Christian's Feustel and Shannahan talked about their first-time experience with Envirothon.
"It's definitely been an experience, Maddie said. "I learned a lot I wouldn't have learned normally [in school], and it's shown me that I'm interested in a lot of areas of science I hadn't previously thought about."
Gracie said her team's success showed all the hard work paid off.
"That was really rewarding, to know it was easier than I thought if I studied hard enough," she said. "I was glad it all paid off."