INVERNESS — More than 400 high school students from six counties swarmed Fort Cooper State Park on Wednesday to ruminate over tree rings, study snakes and ponder a wide-mouth bass.
The hands-on natural olympics known as the Nature Coast Regional Envirothon, now in its 14th year, featured the traditional five categories: aquatics, biodiversity, forestry, soils and wildlife.
But this year, the 82 teams came not just from Hernando, Pasco, Citrus and Sumter counties. Pinellas and Hillsborough students joined in the educational fun, as well, as budget cuts curtailed their regional competition.
In fact, the winning team on Wednesday, the Canterbury School of Florida, came from Pinellas County. The "Sinking Propagules'' left with a large trophy and a $5,000 scholarship, financed by the St. Petersburg Times.
Five team members will share the funds: senior Justin Coates, 17; senior Christine Hammerschmidt, 17; junior Annie Ritch, 17; junior Sarah Realbuto, 16, and junior Clark Gairing, 17.
"We've been doing well for the last several years," Ritch said, "and we've just been building momentum and building on the program."
The competition has five-member teams rotate among the five stations, answering written questions about the specific areas. Often, the students must climb into holes to identify soils, perform minor experiments with water and get nose-to-nose with critters.
The Sparkleberries team, from Springstead High School in Spring Hill, wrestled with the aquatics questions.
"The questions were really detailed, and a lot of the questions had more than one answer,'' said Allison Goldberg. She and her teammates — Trish Calandro, Emmuel Myrtil, Erin Nichols and Leeanna Lackie — liked the wildlife section the best.
"It was a lot of hands-on activities that I didn't feel we had enough time for," Sean Stewart of Pasco County's Ridgewood High said of the traditionally tough soils section.
His team, The Organic Squirrels (Stewart, Heather Greimann, Amber Page, Ben Commaratta, and Cara Parsons) enjoyed the aquatics.
The Go-Getters from Springstead won the prize as the top team from Hernando County. The members are Justin Buffington, Brittney Cruz, Krystal Gundersen, Rebecca Bennett and T.J. Henry.
The highest-scorers from Citrus County were the Academy of Environmental Science's, Dorkfish: Ashley Ballien, Gabby Tarnowski, Garrett Skelton, J.J. McPhee, Zach Zachry.
Berkley Preparatory School topped their Hillsborough County counterparts. The members of Berkley are Larissa Rainey, Alli Inlehart, Anne Kelley, Nicole Lightman, Mina Massey.
Pasco County's top team was Sunlake High School's NEADD: Rachel Shaffer, Jimmy Singer, Dan Swan, Anthony Hernandez and Katie O'Shaughnessy.
Pinellas County's winner was Canterbury School of Florida, The Sinking Propagules.
From Sumter County, The Villages Charter Schools team, the Wakalakas, took the county trophy. They are Grace Avecilla, Kristin Kazmier, Mona de Torres, Kaylee Robertson, Rachel Rockey.
The Go-Getters were one of nine participating Springstead teams advised by teachers Lisa Dickerson, Chris Auricchio and Carla Rydzik. Nature Coast Technical School was represented by six teams, advised by Dan Lambert and Amiee Moon.