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WMS National Geographic Bee highlights knowledge of 30 students

Ryan McGaughey/Daily Globe Vince Riley (left) sports his medal and certificate of participation Tuesday after winning the Worthington Middle School National Geographic Bee. At his right is runner-up Taylor McCarvel.

WORTHINGTON -- Eighth-grader Vince Riley was the eventual champion, but there were mountains to climb and rivers to ford en route to his claiming the title in the annual Worthington Middle School (WMS) National Geographic Bee, which took place Tuesday morning.

Thirty fifth- through eighth-grade students -- those who scored highest on a preliminary geography test taken by all of the school's roughly 770 students several weeks ago -- participated in the bee.

"The 30 of you who made it to this bee are already at the top," encouraged sixth-grade social studies teacher Paula Wolyniec as the two-hour contest began. "Congratulations."

Wolyniec and Derek Schmitz, also a sixth-grade social studies teacher, organized and proctored the bee, which starts with seven preliminary rounds. Thereafter, the 10 participants with the most correct answers proceed to final competition.

It took a tie-breaker to determine the last three top-10 qualifiers. Ultimately, Kyle Mullaney, Jacob Hagerman and Davis Moore joined the seven who had already secured a spot in the finals: Riley, Kaitlyn Brunk, Matt DeSmith, Kyle Janssen, Kalea Appel, Carter Ponto and Taylor McCarvel.

With about two dozen family members attending in person, and an unknown portion of WMS students and staff watching the cerebral action via live camera feed, all 30 geography buffs tackled questions one by one as they progressed from relatively easy to definitely challenging.

"Which state is closer to Canada --Iowa or Missouri?" and "Which state has the largest area of deciduous forest -- Maine or Kansas?" were a couple queries in the earliest rounds.

With most of the contestants acing their responses, incorrect answers became more frequent when the questioner required a continent to be named with only subtle clues provided -- for instance, "Which continent sits entirely above the Tropic of Cancer?"

When it came time for the tiebreaker leading up to the final competition, the question, "The sources of the Snake and Yellowstone Rivers are in what major mountain range?" quickly eliminated five contenders.

But through it all, Riley kept his cool and tallied only two wrong answers throughout the entire contest.

"I was in the bee last year, but I got knocked out after the preliminary rounds," recalled Riley following Tuesday's event. "The experience helped."

Janssen and McCarvel were the only two left standing with Riley toward the bitter end, where they encountered questions ranging from the easier ("The town of Bozeman lies north of the Yellowstone National Park in which state?") to the more obscure ("Name the large chain of volcanic islands stretching about 1,200 miles west of the Alaska Peninsula").

It was Riley's correct response, "Aleutian Islands," that netted him the win, with seventh-grader McCarvel finishing as first runner-up.

"I like geography a lot," confirmed McCarvel, who smiled broadly when he nailed an answer involving Kodiak bears and Alaska. "I knew that one because I just saw a TV show about crab fishing off Kodiak Island."

That kind of enthusiasm is what makes it worthwhile for WMS to stage the geo bee each year, Wolyniec said.

"The bee highlights geography and gives kids who enjoy it a chance to strut their stuff," she said. "It's an educational process in itself.

"Americans tend to have a poor knowledge of geography, so it's important for us to do what we can to encourage students to study geography."

Riley, the son of Frank and Chris Riley, wrestles when he isn't watching the History Channel or reading. He says he likes to travel and believes that "going places" helped him achieve his geographic win.

"I'd like to thank my parents for giving me world experiences that helped me answer a lot of these questions," said Riley, adding he has been to Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Door County, Wis., with his family.

Now the eighth-grader may take a 100-question qualifying test before Jan. 30, 2013, the outcome of which will determine if he advances to the Minnesota National Geographic Bee in early April.

Three local geographic bee champions in recent memory have made it to the state bee -- 2007 WHS alumnus Quentin Dudley, WHS senior Gordy Moore and WHS sophomore Oliver Wolyniec-- the latter of whom was a two-time local champion and state qualifier.

Said Riley, who confirmed he would be studying in advance of taking the qualifying test, "The geography bee and wrestling are completely different, but both are pretty challenging in different ways."

Additional participants in the 2012 WMS National Geographic Bee were J.R. Arnt, Kendrick Bickett, Sam Burns, Natalie Demuth, Blaine Doeden, Sam Fellows, Dale Hansen, Miguel Harlow, Colby Hastings, Liz Hayenga, Karter Honius, Shawn Hurley, Selomon Kebede, Latoria Lowe, Anna Meyer, Nicholas Ramirez, Natalia Rodriguez, Turner Rogers, Alex Scholtes and Tad Stewart.