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Odyssey of the Mind

Cato-Meridian Middle School students are going to the World Finals for the Odyssey of the Mind competition on May 22 at Michigan State University. In the front, from left, is Vanessa Lees, Nadia Dudley and Brayden Smith; in the back, from left, is Halie Allen, Kaydence Morrissette, Avery Hempel and Preston Daggett

CATO — All seven members of the Cato-Meridian Middle School Odyssey of the Mind team said their favorite part of preparing for this year's competition was dismantling computers.

The seventh grade students said they took apart computers donated by teachers with screwdrivers and hammers for parts, which were then placed on a prop for a scene the students devised for their project. Now the team, computer parts and all, is headed to the World Finals at Michigan State University later this month.

The students tied with another group for second place in a category at the state contest in Binghamton in March, qualifying them for the final round. Team members Halie Allen, 13, Preston Daggett, 13, Nadia Dudley, 12, Avery Hempel, 12, Vanessa Lees, 13, Kaydence Morrissette, 13, and Brayden Smith, 12, have all been in Cato-Meridian's Odyssey of the Mind program for five years.

The competition requires students to write and produce a sketch that solves a problem involving a subject like history or science. The problem the Cato-Meridian group chose, called "Structured Toss," had to feature a carnival with multiple games and a barker character. The scene also required tossing a structure made of balsa wood, then testing its structural integrity by placing weights on it.

Using those parameters, the group devised the pun-filled story of an old man, played by Brayden, who is nostalgic for older technology and hits his head on his keyboard's space bar. He wakes up as a young man, as signified by a mullet wig that Brayden said he decided he had to use the moment he found it. The young man finds himself at a carnival with space and cyberspace elements, including aliens and the aforementioned computer parts. The barker character actually barks, as Halie plays Laika, the dog who became the first animal to orbit the Earth in 1957.

"It's fun to work with other people, especially when you're working on something creative," Avery said.

The students began creating props in October and started scripting by November. The scene's themes allowed the students to get creative. Kaydence explained that she has discs on her legs during the scene because outer space is usually shiny, she said.

Nadia's teammates singled out her efforts on the balsa wood structure required for the scene. The students spent time after school working on their project, they said, achieving first place in their problem at the regional competition in Aurelius in March before reaching the state tournament. At the state competition, the students were initially saddened when a different team was called for second place until they heard they tied, so "pretty much everyone cried," Vanessa said, once the team's name was called.

"I just didn't believe it, and then I just heard Brayden scream," Preston said, much to the laughter of his teammates. Brayden said he was simply overcome with excitement.

Halie said she and her teammates get along despite being around each other so much, both in rehearsals and in classes.

"We all just kind of joke around with each other. It's like having another family because you're so close to them," she said, to the agreement of her teammates. "When you argue, it's just because you're so used to each other."

Debra Harrigan, one of the team's coaches and the district Odyssey of the Mind coordinator, said every student contributed their strengths to their project. She praised different contributions everyone made: the time Avery devoted to the costumes, the artistic elements Vanessa worked on. Harrigan also recalled laughing when Halie, as Laika, improvised a bark while practicing a scene where she moves a prop rocket.

Brayden said he's counting the days until the Cato-Meridian team heads to the competition, and said he's excited for the experience.

The group's other coach, Sarah Mavretish, said she has worked with the students since they were all in third grade, and has seen them grow in the process.

"To see them all work together to get to this point is a nice accomplishment," she said. "Because they've learned a lot."

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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