Ad Champs Add Triumph After Firefly Fiasco

UNLV communications team wins regional competition, despite food poisoning


Lisa Coruzzi was fighting cold sweats, noodly legs and stabbing abdominal pain when she and four fellow UNLV students took the stage April 24 at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Student Pavilion. They were about to present UNLV’s entry in the district-level face-off of the National Student Advertising Competition, a high-pressure annual contest that invites college students to create a full-scale marketing campaign and pitch it to an actual company—in this case, Glidden Paint.

The Southern Nevada team hadn’t won the competition in five years of trying, but it wasn’t nerves that had hold of Coruzzi; it was salmonella.

On April 22, two days before the competition, she and fellow presenters Kayla Agnello, Brianna Anderson, Kristina Guerrero and Gabe Lapuz (along with a few other of the total 40 team members from the university) went to dinner together at Firefly restaurant on Paradise Road. The following morning, they hit the road for Fullerton. By that evening, all were exhibiting signs of the now-well-publicized Firefly salmonella outbreak that sickened 200 people, according to the Southern Nevada Health District.

“Headache, nausea, fatigue—it was hard to stand up,” Coruzzi recalls. “Thursday morning [April 24], it was at its peak.”

The group—which had been preparing for five months—was scheduled to make its presentation that morning. Kathy Callahan, a UNLV instructor who accompanied the students on the trip, had seen them the night before and was concerned they wouldn’t be up to it. She texted Coruzzi to find out how they were doing.

The reply: “Pretty bad … But I can do this.”

That determination carried Team Rebelation (as the group called itself) through its presentation—a campaign geared toward females that portrays home beautification as a form of empowerment. Next, they watched the other teams’ pitches and, finally, the awards ceremony. The students took turns sleeping on couches in the lobby, sipped coconut water to stay hydrated and shared pain-relief medicine.

The effort paid off. In the final moments of the ceremony, UNLV was announced as the winner.

“I’d always hoped to be in the top three,” Callahan says. “When I heard that Cal State Fullerton was third, I thought we were probably out of it. Then, they said USC was second place, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s it. We’re out for sure.’ Then they announced UNLV, and pandemonium broke out around me.”

Callahan says she’s particularly proud of her team, because it started at a disadvantage relative to others, some of which spend up to a year working on their projects and won’t allow participants to work outside jobs. “Many of our students are working 30 hours a week to put themselves through school, on top of doing internships and keeping up with other classes,” she says.

UNLV now has the chance to prove itself on a national stage. Having won its district title, the team goes on to the national competition in Phoenix, June 5-8. Obviously, it’ll take more than salmonella poisoning to keep Team Rebelation down.

“We were so sick, that we couldn’t celebrate our victory [in Fullerton],” Coruzzi says, “but we’re going to make up for it at nationals.”

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