They are a team that doesn’t quit.
At the end of last summer, the Carmichaels Area High School Envirothon team was hot off the success of a state championship and an appearance in an international competition. With all five members returning for another year, they quickly reset their goal: to do it all again, but this time around, to do it a little better.
And so far, they’re staying the course.
The team of Jacob Hair, Joey Kurincak, Ryan Swartz and Stephen Zacoi, all of whom recently graduated from Carmichaels, and rising senior Christina Adams, repeated as state Envirothon champions in 2019 and will again represent the state on an international stage.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Envirothon coach and Carmichaels high school science teacher Kevin Willis said of the team’s prospective of repeating as state champions.
“We knew that our preparation last year was off the charts and it showed. (This year) we took working hard to a whole new level, knowing that it was going to take a monumental effort to get back-to-back state championships. We wanted to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.”
Representing Greene County at the 36th Pennsylvania State Envirothon held May 21-22 at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and Windber Recreation Park, the Carmichaels team defeated teams of high school students from 66 other counties and edged second place Penncrest High School of Delaware County by just five points to secure a victory.
At the Envirothon, teams compete in a series of field station tests that focus on five topic areas – soils and land use, aquatic ecology, forestry, wildlife and environmental issues. They also deliver oral presentations to judges who evaluate each team on its problem-solving capabilities, oral presentation skills and recommendations to help solve a specific environmental challenge that relates to a current environmental issue. The 2019 environmental issue focused on “Agriculture and the Environment: Knowledge and Technology to Feed the World.”
With a score of 536 out of a possible 600 points, Carmichaels finished the competition with the highest station score in aquatics and were among the top three scoring teams statewide in four other categories.
“It hasn’t fully kicked in,” Hair said of the team’s accomplishments. “Maybe when it’s all said and done, we can look back and say we just won two amazing competitions, not just for us but for Carmichaels. It’s nice for the community.”
The team has spent the summer gearing up for the NCF-Envirothon, slated for July 28 to Aug. 2 at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. The “international” competition will pit the Greene County school against teams from 47 states, eight Canadian provinces and one territory, and two Chinese provinces.
Carmichaels finished 18th in last year’s 50-team contest held at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho. They are aiming to improve on that placement next week when they shoot for a top-10 finish, which eluded them last year by a mere 13½ points.
After countless hours of preparation over the past four years, however, the ultimate goal is, of course, to return to Carmichaels victorious.
“I’ve been going through a roller coaster of emotions,” said Zacoi. “I’m so happy that we get the chance to go through it again, that we get the chance to improve on our mistakes. It’s great to get that opportunity.”
The five students have doubled down on their preparation efforts following their second state title, using the summer months to work through resources, practice oral component scenarios and make adjustments to changes in the competition.
Swartz, the team’s captain and only four-year member, called the experience “surreal.”
“The first time we won hasn’t really sunk in yet. Last year we got on a plane to nationals, came right back and started preparing for this year. I think we thought we could be here again but that it would be a lot tougher,” he said.
But as Willis puts it, this group is hungry. He sees how hard they have worked – during lunch breaks and prep periods, inside and outside of school. They are incessantly working, he said.
“I’m happy that they have this opportunity. After last year’s amazing experience, 18th (place) is unbelievable,” said Willis. “But after all the hard work they’ve put in, I’m glad they have the chance to come back again and compete this year.”