The 2013 University of Maryland Soil Judging Team
The 2013 University of Maryland Soil Judging Team

It had been 29 years since a soil  judging team from this university won a national championship, but on April 26, that dry spell came to an end.

Defeating teams from 21 other schools and universities from across the nation, the UMD Soil Judging Team took the top prize at the National Collegiate Soil Judging Contest in Platteville, Wis. The team members had one hour to prove their ability to describe the characteristics of various layers of soil in a 5-foot-deep pit, and after their answers were compared to a master answer sheet, they came out on top with the highest score.

“If you were to ask me what made the difference this year, it would probably be the hard work that all of the new members of the team put in these past two semesters and the continued effort of veterans from last year’s team,” said Tyler Witkowski, a senior soil and watershed science major.

For the competition, students were asked to determine such characteristics as the soil’s classification, geological history, how well the soil absorbs and transmits water and supports roots, the long-term development of the soil, and potential challenges for land use. To prepare, the team members practiced weekly by examining pits similar to the one featured in the contest.

“They put in 10-hour days in grueling field conditions, and then they kept studying at night,” team coach Brian Needelman said. “They did it because they love it, and they loved being part of this team.”

This university also won the contest in 1972 and 1984. And when the judges announced this university’s team as this year’s winner, the students erupted in loud cheers.

“I was shocked. I knew my team was very good, but they were also very humble. They told me all about all the mistakes they had made during the contest, so I really didn’t think we had a chance to win,” Needelman said. “The team dumped Gatorade on my head, which was a first for me. There was a lot of leaping and hollering.”

Team member and environmental science and policy graduate student Steph Jamis was not able to compete in the championship due to an injury. However, she said the win was still a fairy tale moment for her.

“This win was huge for us. I won’t lie, I did cry Cinderella tears various times,” Jamis said. “It meant that a hardworking team like ours that had a very slim chance of winning the competition could prove everyone wrong. It was such a great feeling to accomplish something like that.”

For some, this was an opportunity not only to hone their skills but also to build friendships and see the country in a whole new way.

“I was skeptical at first, as most are when they hear about us, but these contests allow you to see America through soils,” senior environmental science and technology major Ryan Adams said. “West Virginia was beautiful last year. This year, we met a wine farmer none of us will soon forget. You meet gaggles of people from all over the country. It’s a great community.”

The team also won top prize in the group-judging portion of the contest for the second year in a row. Members also took victories in the individual competition, with Witkowski coming in third place and 2012 alumna Davinia Forgy taking eighth place.