| The Citizen, Auburn NY |
Port Byron Odyssey of the Mind competitors ready for states

By Erik Sorensen / Special to The Citizen
Friday, March 30, 2007 11:40 AM EDT

PORT BYRON - Experience? You can't beat it.

Impending retirement? There's nothing sweeter than going out on top.

For Port Byron's Odyssey of the Mind high school team competing at the state finals at SUNY Binghamton Saturday, both those aspects are in play.

Coach Nancy Murinka is teaching her last of 34 years at Port Byron instructing third-graders.

Out of the seven student competitors, five are seniors. This is their last chance to qualify for the World Finals to be held in late-May at Michigan State University.

This group has an impressive track record. Of the eight years Murinka has guided them, they've reached state finals seven times - starting when seniors Jeff Abraham, Pat Fagan, Christie Gleason and juniors Frankie Smart and Doug Sheffield, were in elementary school. They went to the World Finals in 2005 and have three top three state finishes - just missing the worlds.

"Experience is really important because every year we think back to what other teams did the year before, or something we did before and we incorporate it into out new script every year," Gleason said.

The other two team members are senior Justine Nielens and junior C.J. Kudla.

"The judges have actually commented to us that we've obviously been together a long time," Murinka said. "Just the way they conduct themselves, they see the teamwork."

Odyssey of the Mind centers around certain "problem" situations and the teams must resolve them through the course of an?eight-minute skit.

Port Byron's Division III team advanced because of their winning performance in one of 16 regional competitions in the state. There are two other age groups - Division II, for students in grades 6-8 and Division I for elementary school.

Students from nearly all 50 states compete, as well as 25 countries.

For Port Byron, their skit's assigned theme is "I'm Only Thinking of You." Under the format, the aggressor gets away with questionable behavior in the first two instances; the third time, they get caught.

"We had to create and perform a work of art showing a creature taking advantage of other creatures," Kudla said. The main characters are a Venus flytrap and an assortment of tasty bugs.

As for Murinka's role, her input is limited. She can't suggest lines or possible ways to stage the skit. She may only push her team to ask such questions as "is this the best that you can do?"

The team leaves today and they've been working diligently.

"We're here a lot working on it," said Kudla, adding they've often been at the school till 9 p.m. "We tweak it out a lot between regionals and states."

While practice helps, there is a large intangibility during each competition, the scoring's "spontaneity" portion. The results' two other portions are the skit's actual nuts-and-bolts and "style" points - the work's imagination, especially the humor and wit have been included. ?

The spontaneity portion can involve the volunteer judges posing a puzzle to the team or asking them questions that relate to a theme. They want to see how well the team can think on their feet. ?

"We all have a pretty close relationship and we're all really good friends," Abraham said. "I think that's one of the best things for our team, we're actually friends outside of this."

At states, two teams working in each theme from each division, will advance to the world finals. Two years ago everyone, except Nielens, traveled to Boulder, Colo. for the competition. ?

For Murinka, there is more work. Regardless of the outcome, this is a group she will always think fondly of.

"I've loved it. I've really enjoyed watching them grow from Division I to Division III. I mean, they're adults now," she said. "Odyssey is just very unusual - once it gets into you, it's hard to let go. As soon as the one year ends, you're thinking about next year. And when can we start!"

When the school year ends, Murinka is unsure of what she'll do next. She currently volunteers at the Seward House and plans to spend more time there. She also might start working with another Odyssey team, perhaps returning to elementary-age children. ?

"It's been a great run. It's one of the things I've been most proud of in my life, being an Odyssey coach," Murinka said.

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