“Yeah,” says Joe. “You showed us too much love.”
Once the last rocket has launched, the intercom makes the come-to-the-formal-awards announcement. The ceremony features short speeches from an Obama administration bureaucrat, a legislator, and a U.S. serviceman. The Rebels drag themselves to the edge of the crowd and plop down in the grass to watch the top 10 teams get their due. As the winners are announced, the size of the prizes and scholarships grows, and so does the Lodi team’s despair.
Finally, the top three teams are revealed: Lambert High School from Suwanee, Georgia, and Harmony Magnet Academy from Strathmore, California, tie for third place. And the winner is…Rockwall-Heath High School in Heath, Texas.
“They’re just on cloud nine,” says Susan Votel, a Rockwall-Heath physics teacher and, for the last two years, the five-year-old club’s sponsor. In its first year, the team didn’t make nationals, and the last two years they’ve been stuck out of the money—in 12th place. “It’s just been several years in a row that they have placed well at the national competition,” says Votel. “This year they finally broke the spell.”
The team of four—president and senior John Easum (who started the club in eighth grade), seniors Michael Gerritsen and Colt McNally, and junior Landon Fisher—receives $10,500 in scholarships, and the club receives $1,000. They get to visit the White House and fly to Paris free to compete against the British and French teams. It’s a day Rockwell-Heath will never forget.
Neither will the Lodi Rocket Rebels. “This was their first year, and they got to go to Virginia,” says Fusco, leading the team’s exodus to the dinner tent before Rockwell-Heath finishes taking its bows. One Rebel observes that there’s a bright side to losing: They get to eat before the rush. Another Rebel boasts: “The only team from New Jersey and we placed 24th!”
Fusco has already set his sights on next year. “Move over, Snookie,” he says. “We are going to be the people from New Jersey that everyone is talking about.”
Phil Scott’s latest book is Then & Now: How Airplanes Got This Way.