Middle-school ‘mathlete,’ coach prep for national event

Image provided
Coach Stephen Schmidt and the MathCounts team will head to Florida in May to compete in the national contest.Image provided Coach Stephen Schmidt and the MathCounts team will head to Florida in May to compete in the national contest.

By Kristin Schultz

Gazette Reporter

To everything there is a season. Welcome to spring, the season for academic national competitions. MathCounts will be held in mid-May, with a Niskayuna student as a part of the New York state team.

This national competition will be the first time a Niskayuna student has participated since 2008 and the first time a Niskayuna coach has made the trip since 1996. Iroquois seventh-grader Rowechen Zhong will join three other students — from New Hartford, Rochester and New York City — representing the state in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, May 13 -16. They will compete against 220 “mathletes” from other states and U.S. territories.

Coaching the team is Stephen Schmidt, professor of economics at Union College and a parent-volunteer at Iroquois. Schmidt has coached the Iroquois Middle School team for years, with 2017 being his last.

“It’s time,” Schmidt said. “But it’s hard, too. There’s always that next kid or group of kids you want to work with just one more year.”

Assistant coach Stephanie Vernooy will take over for Schmidt next year.

The road to the national championships is different than other team academic competitions. The top three teams in a region, or chapter, advance to the state finals. At the state finals, participants receive both individual and team scores. The top four individuals in the state make up the team for nationals, regardless of which school he or she attends.

The Iroquois Middle School team took second place at the state competition and Zhong’s individual score was high enough that he made the national team.

As the coach of the second place team, Schmidt was tapped to train the national team when the coach of the first place team declined.

Coaching students who live across the state is no easy feat, but the burden is eased with the help of technology. Schmidt posts questions in an online forum similar to that of an online college class, which allows for discussion and interaction.

The students will also meet in person twice before the trip to Florida. They will practice speed drills and work through harder questions as a team.

“These kids are obviously very smart,” said Schmidt. “They have what they need in their ‘bag of math tricks.’ At this level, it’s more about figuring out which one you need to solve the problem.”

It may be Schmidt’s last year as a local coach, but it’s also his first year as a national coach. For help and advice, he’s turning to fellow coaches across the state.

“They’re very helpful and telling me what to expect and the best ways to prepare,” he said.

Even with all the preparation, Schmidt hopes the students come away with more than potential awards and recognition.

“This will be successful if they learn something new and develop their math skills,” he said. “I also hope they meet others, make new friends and get a real sense of the math community from around the country.”