They took on the world — and they won

Wesley Chapel Elementary’s “Catch Us If You Can” team has returned as champions from the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals, which took place at Michigan State University.

Front row, from left, Jake Piller, Rowan Heyman, Justin Acosta, Jason Sherman, Mina Melaika, Isabell Barrios and Sam Cappelluti. Back row, from left, Veronica Acosta, Matt Whaley and Janet Heyman. (Courtesy of  Joelisa Sherman)

The victory thrilled the team’s members — Jake Piller, Sam Cappelluti, Isabell Barrios, Mina Melaika, Rowan Heyman, Jason Sherman and Justin Acosta, and the team’s coaches — Janet Heyman and Veronica Acosta.

Before heading to the international competition, the fourth- and fifth-graders had already demonstrated that they were contenders.

They won first place at the Gulf Coast Regional competition, and wowed the judges so much that they won the “Ranatra Fusca Award” for their exceptional creativity.

They also won first place at the state tournament at the University of Central Florida on April 8.

Still, it was the team’s first appearance on the world stage, so team members were hopeful, but also realistic.

“It was our first time going,” explained Jason Sherman, 10. “Most people on our team — like me and my friend, Jake — we knew we’d be OK if we didn’t win.

“When I was pin trading, I overheard people talking, saying, that they’d been there for over seven straight years, and they hadn’t won anything.

Coaches Veronica Acosta, left, and Janet Heyman pose with the trophy their team won at the Odyssey of the Mind World finals. The team scored 340.62 points, which is 22.55 points higher than the second-place team

“I was OK, knowing this was our first time, and we probably weren’t going to win anything,” he said.

Odyssey of the Mind is a competition that encourages students to use creative approaches to solving problems. The program emphasizes the importance of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Ten-year-old Justin Acosta said he thinks the team succeeded because of its experience in working together and continual efforts to improve.

“The first year, we practiced. The second year, we practiced some more,” he said, and the third year, it all came together.

Ten-year-old Jake Piller said winning the competition is a pretty big deal.

“I definitely think it’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened in our school, and in our county,” he said, adding it’s “pretty big for Florida,” too.

Ten-year-old Sam Cappelluti said he was really nervous, as they awaited the results.

When they found out they had defeated China to win first place, they all screamed, he said.

“It was crazy,” said 11-year-old Isabell Barrios. “We all started crying.”

Barrios thinks the team stepped up its game for the competition.

“In the World performance, I think we did our best. We talked a lot louder and clearer,” Barrios said.

The ‘Catch Us If You Can’ team from Wesley Chapel Elementary School celebrates as it comes out of the spontaneous portion of their competition. During this part of the competition, the team enters alone without coaches and/or parents, and no spectators are allowed. The team excelled, scoring 98.16 percent from a possible 100 percent.

Barrios also noted that team members made sure they had all of their bases covered.

“This year, after we had everything done, we went through a checklist to make sure we had everything,” she said.

Sherman said the team turned it up a notch for the world competition.

“Right before we went on, we were all talking about adding more drama to it,” Sherman said.

Ten-year-old Mina Melaika thinks that the team’s ability to work well together, and to recover quickly when things didn’t go exactly as planned contributed to its victory.

“We all know each other really well,” Melaika added. Besides being teammates, many of them share the same classes.

Ten-year-old Rowan Heyman thinks a strong performance in the spontaneous portion of the competition was an important element in winning. “We worked as a team.”

As the winners were announced, the coaches kept hearing names of other countries and weren’t sure if their team would take home anything beyond the great experience it had at the competition.

So, they were ecstatic when they heard that they had won.

“I was crying,” Janet Heyman said, adding she’s proud of the team’s hard work and perseverance.

Coach Veronica Acosta said the kids have worked so closely together that “they’ve become one family.”

They’ve learned from mistakes, too, she said.

“That’s what Odyssey is about: Failing and picking up the pieces, and moving forward and going onto the next step. Not giving up —because these problems are not easy,” Coach Acosta said.

The coaches also thanked Freda Abercrombie, regional director for Odyssey of the Mind.

Without her, they said, their program wouldn’t exist.

Published June 6, 2017

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