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Talent puts girls on top of world


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Their stomaches in knots, the five best friends from Pasco couldn't believe they were about to be shut out of one of the biggest academic competitions in the world.

Four days earlier, the girls had made the 15-hour trek from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey to Knoxville for the international Odyssey of the Mind tournament. Their competition: More than 3,000 students from 36 countries.

A win would be totally unexpected. In the 21 years of Odyssey of the Mind, no team from the Tampa Bay area had ever won first place at the world tournament. Heck, only a handful of teams had even made it that far.

The ninth-graders held their breath as the emcee opened the final envelope.

"They didn't even have to say "River Ridge,' " said Maria Ippolito, 14. "All they said was "Riv . . .' and we were jumping and screaming and hugging people."

Today, the girls wear gold.

"This is a very big deal," team coach Kay Stout said on Monday, still flabbergasted two days after the win. Odyssey of the Mind is a scholastic competition that had been described as a quirky cross between a science fair, a masquerade party and the Olympics. Each fall, the competition's organizers publish a list of problems students can opt to tackle. This year the problems ranged from building elastic-powered cars to writing and performing plays to building enormously strong balsa wood bridges.

Teams spend up to $125 and the better part of the school year designing, testing and refining their solutions. Judges rate the teams' solutions on creativity, style and how well they work. Teams also compete in a "spontaneous" problem-solving contest. The winners get gold medals and a trophy.

The River Ridge girls didn't dominate any one category, but they placed high enough in each to beat a North Carolina team by less than a point -- 340.05 to 339.51. This year, the girls wrote a farce based on the legend of King Arthur. According to their skit, the legend started when a medieval cafeteria manager baked a small gourd atop a scone; it causes a ruckus that ends with the wicked lunch lady being fired and the asylum inmates being set free. Searching for a flashier angle to the tale, the town crier gets creative and the gourd-in-the-scone becomes the sword-in-the-stone.

The girls designed and built a 7-foot-tall book with pop-up scenery that serves as a backdrop to their skit, The Gourd in the Scone. Each page of the book's scenery includes chandeliers, tables, fences and jousting knights. Judges were so impressed with the display that they videotaped the girl's production for use in Odyssey of the Mind promotional video.

The River Ridge team earned a berth by winning the state competition in April, but their journey really started in elementary school. Sara Beniamino, 15, Kendra, 15, and Maria have been together on Odyssey of the Mind teams since fifth grade.

Caitlin Qualters, 14, and Ashely Reyes, 14, joined the squad two years ago when the girls competed in the world tournament at Epcot. They finished 10th. The girls feed off their camaraderie and spent hundreds of hours writing their script, creating scenery and sewing costumes.

And their wheels never stop turning. The girls spent part of their 15-hour drive home from the University of Tennessee brainstorming ideas for next year's competition. They don't want to tip their hand, but their performance is likely to be a complete musical featuring glow-in-the-dark puppets. They're also dead set on figuring out a way to make Ashley fly.

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