Luke Isensee and Bailey Hilgren of Chatfield give a thumbs-up signal as they are gather for the National History Day Competition where they placed 11th with their project on an environmental court case in Freeborn County. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Luke Isensee and Bailey Hilgren of Chatfield give a thumbs-up signal as they are gather for the National History Day Competition where they placed 11th with their project on an environmental court case in Freeborn County. SUBMITTED PHOTO
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Luke Isensee and Bailey Hilgren's exclamation point was their lucky number - 11.

"The state coordinator called it our exclamation point - we were talking at the airport that this would be the last thing we do for high school," said Bailey. She was speaking of the moments before she, Luke and her father, Chatfield High School history instructor Tom Hilgren, departed the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Competition in Washington, D.C.

The Chatfield duo earned 11th place in the nation with their documentary on "Freeborn vs. Bryson," an historic court case in which Freeborn County wanted to build a road through the farmyard belonging to one very angry Mr. Bryson.

The delegation arrived in the nation's capital on Saturday, June 8, and attempted to rest up for the coming days, but the two admitted that they really didn't get any sleep.

The opening ceremony was held Sunday, June 9. Minnesota students participating in National History Day traveled as a group, unlike many other states' delegates, and the students toured Washington on Sunday and Monday, visiting the Martin Luther King Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Ford Theatre, the National Archives and the White House.

Bailey commented, "They did a really good job of organizing it, making sure we had fun, too."

The 2013 National History Day competition was dedicated to the memory of Chatfield High School alum, Minnesota Historical Society employee and History Day veteran, Laura Zeccardi, who died unexpectedly in February.

Tom Hilgren observed, "At the opening ceremony, they sent up balloons with Laura's picture on them, and we watched them until we couldn't see them anymore."

His daughter added, "It was really cool, especially since she was from the school we went to, that I knew her. She was one of my biggest idols."

Being entered in a national competition wasn't a first for Bailey, who'd spent time learning from Zeccardi and earned tenth place the last time she'd advanced. However, for Luke, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness what History Day had to offer.

Approximately 100 projects were seen at the national competition, and the students were separated by what category they entered - group documentary, individual documentary, individual presentation and more. The sheer variety of projects the pair saw was enough to spark their imaginations, but they had to concentrate on their own work, being ready to answer questions posed by the judges.

Bailey cited that the projects they perused were all very good.

"I think once you get to the national level, all the projects are really good, and it comes down to really little things, like whether your pictures are clear or the judges liked your topic," she said.

Luke felt their project had qualities that stood out from others because it represented a small town court case that had national implications. "I think it was very unique, because most of the topics, people already knew," he said.

Bailey added, "One of the judges who saw our project said they'd never heard of Freeborn vs. Bryson before."

The students presented their project twice, first for the initial round on Tuesday and then found out they were to compete in the finals, so presented again on Wednesday morning.

Bailey said, "We actually were feeling good about it. We watched a group present their project before we did, and the judges asked really hard questions. It's always a little nerve-wracking because you don't know what kind of questions you'll get, but we were as ready as we could have been."

Luke commented, "We knew the answers pretty well."

Tom noted, "History Day projects are never really done - there's always little things you can change."

Bailey felt "the judges apparently liked" their presentation even though they experienced some technical difficulties that required not one, but two audio-video technicians to solve.

Luke stated, "After we presented it the first time, we felt confident."

They had put their "best feet forward," according to Bailey, and then waited.

Hilgren stated, "'Confident' means that you've done your best, that there's not much more that you could've done."

And "confident" meant they had a chance at winning, or at least placing in the finals. Luke credited the "team that did take first" with having "some really cool animation and video effects."

Bailey remarked, "The whole thing was such a fun time, so awesome. The Minnesota History Day staff did such an amazing job. Laura Zeccardi loved her job, and I could see why. There's a Facebook page for all the History Day kids, and they're all wishing each other the best, that they can come back."

Dan Zeccardi, Laura's brother, attended the competition and spoke at the closing ceremony. Hilgren said, "They had a moment of silence and Laura's picture on the big screen, and Dan explained who she was. He also got to pass out medals."

The competition included students from Guam, Puerto Rico, Southeast Asia and Shanghai, and Bailey and Luke got to meet some of them.

Luke related, "I got to talk to someone from Shanghai while we were watching the NBA finals. We have so much in common even though we're from different ends of the world."

Bailey agreed, "You meet so many different people. I think that my favorite part was probably all the fun things the Minnesota people do - we had room decorating contests, a lot of pretty silly things to get into."

Luke enjoyed being in D.C. and seeing all the sights they may have missed on their eighth grade trip. He added that he enjoyed "all the stuff that goes on through the History Day...it was a good way to cap off our senior year."

He added, "We'd like to thank all the people who paid for the trip. We enjoyed it so much. Even the judges love History Day because they learn so much."

Bailey added, "We learned so much, and we got to know the kids from our own state so well by the end of the trip."

Bailey commended her father for his intuitive efforts in making History Day a part of Chatfield High School history. "This is my dad's 19th year doing History Day, and he's taken kids to nationals 15 or 16 years out of that. Chatfield has a strong History Day program, and they know who we are at nationals."