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Ventura County

Camarillo 1st at Statewide Envirothon Competition


Five environmental whiz kids from Camarillo High School have taken first place in a statewide academic competition, earning them a chance to compete against teams from across the country this summer in Massachusetts.

This is the third state championship in a row for the school's Envirothon team, which finished 10th at national finals last year.

"I am so excited, to compete and just to travel across the country," said senior Maggie Valliant, 17. "Every member of this team really feels something for this award."

Earlier this year, it was unclear whether the school would even have a team. Chad Pridgen, who coached the team for four years, was arrested in February and has been on unpaid leave from the Oxnard Union High School District since then. He faces 39 counts of sex crimes involving 11 teenage boys.

Initially 25 students on two teams were involved in the program, but the controversy caused many to drop out, leaving one five-member team.

"They could have easily let that get them down," said Jennifer Ares, vice president of the California Envirothon. "The fact that they stuck together, then came back and won--it was great."

The Envirothon is a national academic competition that quizzes high school students on issues facing the planet.

Twenty-six teams, sponsored by resource conservation districts throughout the state, competed this year. The Camarillo team is sponsored by the Ventura County district in Somis.

Competitors complete written tests and hands-on projects in forestry, wildlife, aquatics and soils. A fifth category that changes each year requires students to develop a plan to solve a hypothetical problem. This year, the topic was invasive species.

At the state finals in Oakhurst last week, seniors Valliant, Tyler LeBrun, Kristen Rhodes, Sean Carroll and junior Nathan Crouther had to devise a plan that would eradicate the yellow star thistle, a nonnative plant species, from a fictional Central California town. They delivered their solution in an oral presentation before a panel of judges.

At the end of the three-day event, the Camarillo team was named the winner, again beating their main rivals, two teams from Arlington High School in Riverside.

"We were shocked, excited and overjoyed," said LeBrun, 17.

To get to that point, they spent many hours reading books, memorizing a 6-inch-thick packet of material, cruising Web sites and meeting with environmental professionals.

Now the team begins preparing for the finals at the end of July.

Though the topics from state to national finals are the same, the questions are based on the environment around the host town of Amherst. So students will spend the next few months familiarizing themselves with the tree species and soil characteristics of New England, said new coach Lyn Perry.

Perry, a former field biologist completing her first year of teaching, went with the team to nationals last year and had worked with Pridgen as an assistant coach.

Taking on the responsibility was a tough decision, but it paid off, Perry said.

"I think because of all the adversity, it makes this win that much more sweet," Perry said. "They felt they had something to prove, and despite all the negative things going on around them, they used that energy in a positive way."

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