The Candy Wrappers, an eighth-grade Odyssey of the Mind team from Bayonet Point Middle School, had been rehearsing for five months for the 2014 Gulf Coast Odyssey of the Mind competition that challenges students from kindergarten through college to apply their creative, mechanical and logical skills to solving long-term problems.
They devoted hours each week to building and painting sets and props, including a pink castle and a wooden car. They also made costumes and wrote and rehearsed scripts.
For the Driver's Test Odyssey problem, the Candy Wrappers were required to design and build a vehicle that could be driven on a course by a student driver who must complete a variety of tasks to pass a driver's test.
Along the way they learned that the road to victory is seldom smooth.
Friends since elementary school, the five eighth-graders have more than a decade's worth of collective experience as Odyssey competitors. Team members Cassie Richardson, Tara Zimmerman, Carly Johnson and Courtney Corlett have made it to the state level in prior competition. Leo Hess joined them for this year's team, coached by Charles Kohl, Bayonet Point parent involvement coordinator, and Arlene Springman, Tara's mother.
"In Odyssey, for every problem there's a solution," said Tara.
"I hang out with my friends and come up with ideas," said Leo.
The team came up with plenty of ideas for their Candy Land skit, including costumes covered in candy wrappers, a colorful scaled palace as a backdrop, comedic dialogue, and a four-wheeled balsa wood car that literally drove the skit.
Yet on March 1, when students took their props to Rushe Middle School for the middle and high school competition, the team discovered a problem with the car's propulsion system. Several team members fought back tears when they couldn't steer the car the way they needed it to go.
"The hardest part is standing back and not being able to help," said Jennifer Hess, Leo's mother.
Within minutes the team rebounded, setting to work on last-minute repairs.
Then the Candy Wrappers took the stage in the Rushe gymnasium. Although their car lost pieces during the skit, the team performed without flubbing a line or missing a cue, finishing the skit with a rap song and a smile.
After the competition the team waited for its scores. At stake was a place among the elite group of winners at the Gulf Coast Odyssey of the Mind, where 182 teams from 50 schools would compete.
"This year we have the largest division in the state," said Freda Abercrombie, Gulf Coast regional director.
Also at stake was the right to move on to the state level of this global competition.
Finally came the Odyssey awards. The Candy Wrappers won first place for Division 2 in the Driver's Test problem and advanced to the state level. They also won the Ranatra Fusca Creativity Award, the event's top honor given for "exceptional creativity." And they won the OMER's Award for their flexibility, improvisation and grace.
"They exemplified the spirit of Odyssey," Abercrombie said.
"They have taught me so much more than I have taught them," he said.