For years, there were two awesome middle school teams, each made up of five returning ninth-graders, seventh- and eighth-graders, and very rarely a sixth-grader. With all the seventh- and eighth-graders at Lakeshore, there could only be one team — halving the number of kids who could participate, doubling the number of kids vying for spots to compete, and likely causing an eventual weakening of the nationally renowned high school team. What a horrible shame!
I imagined all the other schools around the state rejoicing. And I felt terrible that there would no longer be a team for White Pines.
But the head coach was immediately on it. Throughout the summer, she tirelessly fought to find a way for White Pines ninth-graders to still compete. My daughter was one of those ninth-graders.
The coach called to tell us the state and national board's final decision. We could have five ninth-graders compete with a team of sixth-graders — or not compete at all. This was hard to comprehend.
The sixth-graders in the past were mainly learning the ropes, gaining experience and being groomed for future years of competition. This year, they would have to sink or swim. How in the world would White Pines have a chance against the other seventh- through ninth-grade teams?
Despite knowing the odds were stacked against them, the ninth-graders were all in.
The top 10 at Regionals qualify for State. The head coach was confident the team could at least get that far.
White Pines not only qualified, they took third overall — a placement comparable to previous years! We all looked at each other: Could it be possible? Could they actually pull this off?
A year ago, after the state competition, I waited outside the auditorium. Teams all around me were celebrating their achievements. The White Pines team emerged from the doors — medals clanging around their necks and tears running down their cheeks.
After months and months of studying and practicing, after a grueling eight hours of testing, they fell just a handful of points short of their goal. They would not be going to nationals.
Out of 48 teams, they came in third in the state, with a score that in past years had won the whole thing, yet they were unable to celebrate like the teams surrounding them.
Lakeshore, on the other hand, had made it to nationals — but they, too, could not celebrate as they shared White Pines' heartbreak, displaying one of the most amazing things about Science O: the bond between the two middle schools.
These kids work together, study together, push each other and support one another. They pour their hearts and souls into it — and when one falls short, the other is just as pained. This relationship — that no doubt is what makes the high school team so strong — is the saddest casualty of the reconfiguration. At the time, no one had any idea that everything would change in the very near future.
But thanks to the White Pines coach, they could at least make one last miraculous run. And that they did.
This year, after the state competition, the final White Pines team emerged from the auditorium, again with medals clanging around their necks, and again with tears in their eyes. Amazingly, for the same reason, they came in third! Against absolutely impossible odds, they came a mere two points shy of making it to nationals!
Incredible, yet heartbreaking. Heartbreaking, yet so incredible.
With just two points separating them, Lakeshore bumped White Pines out of the last spot for nationals. But, once again, both teams hugged one another, sharing the sorrow — not just because White Pines had come so close, but because this time they all knew it was the last hurrah.
I admit I wiped away my own tears as I watched the White Pines and Lakeshore kids walk away — side by side, some arm in arm — and climb on the bus one last time together.
Sometimes a program is so strong and so successful, it is taken for granted. The community comes to expect, rather than truly appreciate, the excellence — and they no longer are in awe of the accomplishments.
Well, we should all take the time to step back and realize what these kids have done.
Yes, the reconfiguration has dealt a major blow to our Science Olympiad program, but these kids would not, and will not, allow it to hold them back. It may be the end of an era, but I am now convinced that by no means will it be the end of Grand Haven's tradition of excellence.
Congratulations to all of the Science Olympiad teams. You are all truly amazing.
— By Kelly Kalis, Tribune community columnist