The countdown to the 2012 National LifeSmarts Championship is reaching its end. Students and coaches will gather in Philadelphia in just a few days, and they've all worked very hard to earn the chance to represent their states at the national level. LifeSmarts Alumni, NCL Board member, and current LifeSmarts staffer Seth Woods attended the Kentucky state competition in and sent us blog postings that we’re serializing for five days this week to give our readers an inside look at a state competition. Enjoy! By Seth Woods, LifeSmarts alumni Kentucky in early March is beautiful. The days of freezing temperatures are almost gone, and every year there are two things that reaffirm my faith in Kentucky's greatness. First, the entire state slows to a crawl each day there's a UK men's basketball game (and this happens a lot during the postseason—go Cats!); and second, some of our brightest teens come together at the state LifeSmarts tournament. It's been almost ten years to the day I first walked into the Cooperative Extension building at Kentucky State University as a competitor ready for my first state LifeSmarts tournament. Much has happened between then and now. In 2002, I was an awkward sophomore, ready to avenge our 4th place finish the year before. If we were going to make it to Nationals in Washington, DC, we were going to have to stand out. (I am happy to report we did – we won and went on to represent KY that year at nationals.) Now fast forward to 2012, where I'm on the other side of the table. No pressure this time, my ticket to Nationals was already punched (as an official). I peer out at the rows and rows of eager minds in the audience: the farm boys that knew about cars before they could drive, the nattily-dressed ladies from Louisville Manual who taught us the word “non-comedogenic,” the academic (quiz-bowl) teams that spent the ride into Frankfort testing each other on federal agencies and regulations. The 4-H team from Grant County that had learned about FEMA and disaster relief the hard way, when tornadoes swept through their town less than one week earlier. Right here in this room was a clear cross-cut of my state, teenagers from so many backgrounds. There were only a few things they had in common. They're all smart Kentuckians. They're all active consumers. They're all willing to learn more about consumer rights. And most importantly, they all wanted to win the state LifeSmarts competition and move on to nationals. Congratulations to Mason County High School, the KY state champs for 2012 – you earned it! A State Competition Serial in Five Parts: Part 1 Lori Farris, the Kentucky state coordinator, took a leap of faith this year when she changed the state LifeSmarts competition format. In the past (in my past), teams played a straightforward double-elimination bracket to determine the champion. This time, teams needed to work harder if they planned to carry the day; they had to earn it. In addition to the on-stage matches (which are now just part of the competition), students faced down a difficult TeamSmarts online test, where they worked as a team against the clock: 100 questions in 60 minutes. There were also individual tests where each team member was quizzed on different subjects, an important reminder that a team is only as strong as their weakest link. Afterwards, these scores would be combined with the scores from their on-stage games, which would narrow the field to a Final Four. The road to the finals wasn't easy...for anyone. It was a first-time appearance for several teams, including the barnstormers from Bardstown (captained by Bobby Butler), who started the day in second place. It was also the first year for North Hardin, which named its team the “Four Cool Kids & Kevin.” NHHS coach Dan Townsend took pictures all day, soaking in the experience. He told me that most of his students were underclassmen, and could use the experience for next year. And though his team couldn't hold up to Grant County's intellectual juggernaut Easton McClanahan in the first match, they learned quickly. NHHS won their second match of the day against a strong Bracken County 2 team led by Dakota Rider. I leaned back in my chair and kept watching the students compete, drawing comparisons between now and my first time on the stage. The questions seem more challenging now than they used to: these students had to know about everything from what you provide to insurance claims adjusters to how teens can prevent cyberbullying. These are things most adults don't know (but should), and team after team rattled off detailed answers to difficult questions. They had all shown their smarts, but in the end only four would play for the title.