For Amy DeNike, it was almost an addiction.
For four years, the third-grade teacher coached teams at Kingsville Elementary School for an event called "Odyssey of the Mind" in the hopes of winning first prize in the state finals and the chance to compete in the world finals.
Last year, her team was second in the state.
This year, her persistence paid off.
DeNike's team won first place in the elementary school division for its skit that depicts the destruction of Pompeii through a morning television show called "Good Morning Pompeii!"
The team will fly to the University of Tennessee tomorrow to compete in the world finals against teams from 49 states and 10 countries.
"It's so incredible," DeNike says, happily. "Something just clicked."
The Odyssey competition is a creative problem-solving exercise with two parts. It includes a long-term problem on which students spend months working, such as performing a skit that illustrates the destruction of Pompeii, and a spontaneous problem that students solve on the spot during the competition.
Kingsville is one of three Baltimore County schools that will travel to Knoxville -- Gunpowder Elementary School will compete in the world finals for the fourth time, and Cockeysville Middle School is the first county middle school to take first prize in the state finals.
Other schools that will represent Maryland in Tennessee are North Harford High in Harford County, Glenarden Woods Elementary in Prince George's County, North East Middle in Cecil County, Benjamin Stoddart Middle in Charles County, Boonsboro High in Washington County, Snow Hill Middle in Worcester County, Great Mills High School in St. Mary's County, T.C Martin Elementary in Charles County and Thomas Stone High in Charles County.
"I knew that if I was ever going to win, this would be my year," says Mary Evans, Cockeysville's coach and a sixth-grade social studies teacher. "I had children who could work together as a team and I had a lot of support from their parents."
And, Evans admits, "I gave up my entire private life.
"I was [at Cockeysville] for 12 Saturdays in a row," she says. "My husband came, too, because he said if he wanted to see his wife, he'd have to see me here . . . I haven't cooked him a meal since Feb. 2."
At Gunpowder, coach Janet Plum attributes her team's success to the "tight ship" that she runs -- and her students.
"I have real good kids to work with," she says.
In their skit, Kingsville students had to "create and present a performance including a scene that takes place in the ancient city of Pompeii before or during its devastation," according to OM instructions. (Lying in the Campanian plain of Italy southeast of Naples, Pompeii was destroyed in 79 A.D. by the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius.)
The contest, DeNike says, helps students improve their skills in critical thinking and creative problem-solving, but "the main thing is they learn how to work as a team. . . . They learn how to be committed to something."
"You learn a lot of things you'd didn't know before," says Jesse Wasmer, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Kingsville. "All of us can say we've learned about 30 new things," he says.
"I'd never even heard of Mount Vesuvius," before the project began, says Beth Opdyke, 10, also in fourth grade.
"I just get a kick out of it because it's neat to see them going from point zero . . . to see how their personalities and confidences change," DeNike says. "OM really changed them. Other teachers have noticed it, too."
"To me, Odyssey of the Mind is the most challenging thing that you can attempt with children," says Evans, the Cockeysville teacher.