Leo Desjardins, Oren Milder, Mariko Pleiss, Elsa Leijonhufvud-Ault, Nia Lewis, Livia Avgar, Gina Cusano-McLaughlin

Leo Desjardins, Oren Milder, Mariko Pleiss, Elsa Leijonhufvud-Ault, Nia Lewis, Livia Avgar, Gina Cusano-McLaughlin 


Are you ready, team?” Cayuga Heights School Age Program assistant director Gina Cusano-McLaughlin asks her team of students who wait in the stage wings during an Odyssey of the Mind team rehearsal.

“Ready!” They chorus and take the stage as McLaughlin starts a stopwatch.

With precision and urgency prompted by their coach’s timekeeping, the team begins setting up their first scene for rehearsal––two curtains hand-painted to resemble walls and windows which they hold up with music stands. 

Team member Livia Avgar paces the stage with the practiced suspicious glance of her character, a detective named “Ella.” She wears a trenchcoat and cap traditional of Sherlock Holmes and delivers her lines between puffs from a fake pipe with red pipe cleaners poking out to resemble flames. Oren Milder ducks beneath a hand-painted cardboard box with knobs, antennae, and a speaker as he slips into character as “The Radio.” Leo Desjardins crouches quietly, acting as “Oddy” the raccoon, a clever nod to the Odyssey of the Mind raccoon mascot. Mariko Pleiss appears as “Rosemary,” the detective’s assistant, Elsa Leijonhufvud-Ault, acts as “Leona,” the good twin of “Lucille,” the evil twin played by Nia Lewis who tries to sabotage the detective’s case.

The team breezes through their skit they’ve been meticulously perfecting since October. They developed the script which must be performed in under eight minutes entirely from their own creative ideas. The team also provided or made all of their own props and costumes which must fit in a single box and cost a maximum of 125 dollars, as Odyssey rules require.

“It’s our skit,” Avgar said. “We got some outside ideas from [Cusano-McLaughlin] but we had the choice to go with them.”

The team will be solving problem three for the competition, titled, “The Effective Detective” and will compete in the Division I competition, a section which hosts teams from Kindergarten to the fifth grade. This skit, according to Odyssey of the Mind problem description, demands a detective uncover clues, including a red herring clue, to solve historical real-world mysteries and defeat a supervillain.

The team, who is competing in Odyssey of the Mind for the first time, chose to uncover the mystery of a mystical beast, specifically the existence of the Loch Ness monster for their skit. 

“The only two problems that had a mystical beast were the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster,” Lewis said. “We picked the Loch Ness monster because one of our former teammates liked saying ‘Hugga hugga’ which is the Loch Ness monster’s sound.”

The team will act out this mystery at the Odyssey of the Mind Regional Competition hosted by Broome-Tioga BOCES in Binghamton on Saturday, beginning at 7 a.m. They will be the only team from Ithaca competing, but the group prefers to be the sole representation of the city.

“I don’t actually want any other friends to do [Odyssey] because I have always hated competing against my friends,” Leijonhufvud-Ault said. “I don’t like the feeling of having to compete against my friends in something I really care about.”

Leijonhufvud-Ault’s teammates are just as passionate about acting, problem-solving and competing.

“I loved that [Odyssey] would be an acting thing where I actually got judged, unlike other things where I was going and performing and then everybody got an award,” Avgar said. “I wanted to be judged for my skills.”

“I like being in front of judges and an audience,” Desjardins added. “I also compete in dance.”

Oren Milder and Mariko Pleiss agreed Odyssey would be a great way to break into play-acting.

“The way Odyssey was first described to me was it was a combination of art, building creativity, and acting and all of it sounded fun to me,” Milder said. “My mom and I love going to plays so I thought it would be fun to be in one.”

“I’d always gotten nervous when it came to performing plays but I thought I would try [Odyssey],” Pleiss said. “I thought it would be a lot of fun because I knew my friends were doing it and I really like to do plays.”

Depending on their performance at the regional competition on Saturday, the Cayuga Heights School Age Program team has the chance to compete at the state, national and world levels. The group is hopeful for the outcome of their first competition and aims to qualify for the national competition in Iowa. 

“I’m excited about the fact that if we win this competition, we’ll go to another one and if we win that one we get to go to the world finals,” Lewis said. “I just really hope we get that far.”

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