The clean, clear water at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park made a sparkling background Wednesday for the annual environmental Olympics.
Hundreds of high school students from six counties turned out for the Nature Coast Regional Envirothon, competing in hands-on experiments and other tests in five nature-related categories.
The four teams from the Nature Coast region competed, as well, for a $2,500 St. Petersburg Times-sponsored scholarship to be divided among the members of the overall winning team. Teams from the two visiting counties, Hillsborough and Pinellas, were not eligible for the regional award.
Sumter County's Cation Crew from The Villages Charter High School emerged as the winner after a day of toiling among the trees and streams.
Team members Grace Avecilla, Ana Torres, Kaylee Robertson, Mona de Torres and Rachel Rockey, all sophomores, also were the highest-scoring team from Sumter, and had the top score in the wildlife category.
The team will begin a new tradition of taking home a plaque with its name engraved on it, instead of a trophy. The plaque will be returned each year to have the new winning team's name engraved on it.
This was the 15th consecutive year that the Envirothon has been held, with the venue rotating among sites in Hernando, Citrus, Pasco and Sumter counties. This year, 532 students in 97 teams participated.
"This is the biggest Envirothon we've ever had, easily," said Mark Butler, an event coordinator from the Pasco County School District.
The highest-scoring teams from each county are now eligible to compete in the state Envirothon on April 23-24 at Silver Springs State Park. Winners from that event will go to the national contest Aug. 1-7 in California.
Springstead High School's Gumbo team was the top scorer for Hernando County. Members Mark Lombardi-Nelson, Paul Pullen, Milo Leaman, Miranda Hoover and Sammie Gibson agreed that forestry was the toughest category for them.
The easiest? Hands down, it was wildlife.
"We breezed through the questions rather quickly," said Lombardi-Nelson. "It felt right."
The Humpback Whales from Central High had the highest score of all teams in ground water protection. Team members Jaime Martinez, Carolyn Newton, John Daly III, Vone Gonzalez and Zachary Ho Lung all agreed that the soils category was the most difficult.
Pasco County's top scorer was WWDD from Pasco High School. Those team members were Hanah Hollander, J.T. Reale, Kristina May, Teresa Christmas and Beth Barthle.
Hudson High seniors, from the CO2 Is Bad team, Zachary Van Buren, 18, and Ravi Patel, 17, liked the wildlife area. "It was about animals," said Patel. "It was easy because of the common things. It was also Florida-related."
The Lecanto High Panthers were the top scorer from Citrus County and in the soils and the aquatics categories. The team members were Eric Riser, Harrison King, Logan Forsyth, Lily Parrish and Aaron Johnston.
Forestry's top team was the Science Gurus from South Sumter High School: Kylee Story, K'yal Bannister, Amber Sapp, Stacey Sapp and Audrey Varm.
The highest-scoring team from Hillsborough was Berkeley Preparatory School's Berkeley H: Nicole Lightman, Sydney Hughes, Lizzy Garcia, Megan Williams and Chris Kenny.
And Pinellas County's winning team was Canterbury School's Sinking Propagules: Annie Ritch, Clark Gairing, Sarah Realbuto, Nico Leeper and Emory Wolf.
Sponsors included Creative Environmental Solutions Inc.; the State Division of Forestry; Gulf Trophies; the Hernando Audubon Society; Meryman Environmental Inc.; the St. Petersburg Times and Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.