Academic decathlon team places high in state championship

A BITE TO EAT: Sitting down and talking, seniors Nhi Tran and Derrick Vu eat something during the regional championships of Academic Decathlon. The team ended up placing second in this championship and planned to advance to state. Coach and English teacher Anna-Lisa George said that they had everything booked for state when everything shut down last March, “We had won that regional championship,” George said, “we came in second place in 2020, but found out within a week that our score was high enough to qualify for the state championship. So last year we bought the plane tickets and made reservations. We were ready to go to Sacramento when it was shut down.” (Danielle Jones)

The 2020-21 Academic Decathlon team is one of many teams to be affected by this year’s drastic change to extracurricular activities and general school life. Even with the new changes, the team has not shifted their goals away from placing as high as possible in the regional and state championships. Most recently, the team has moved onto the state championship after qualifying in regionals in December of last year. After a long time of waiting for results, they placed second in their division which is the highest place the team has taken in school history.

Co-captain of the Academic Decathlon team senior Justin Vu sees the decathlon as a chance to improve while being around others. To Vu, the new normal hasn’t quite fazed the team’s bond.

“I was excited to see how far the team can go and again be together bonding with one another,” Vu said. “It’s been such an amazing experience learning with [a] group of students during this turbulent time. We found ways to still collaborate and compete with one another in order to become better everyday.”

However, this new bond found through the struggle of adapting also brought a new challenge to the mix for Vu and the team. With less time than the team would have liked, a hurdle was brought into play.

“Transitioning from winning regionals to preparing for state was tough,” Vu said. “We knew we wanted to ease into reading the materials again, but granted with the time we had until competition, there was a sense of urgency. However, with the limited amount of time we had to study and being able to pull off second place in our division is beyond amazing.”

After making it through the hours of studying, the team was able to use that knowledge to put up a fight at state. Vu said that regardless of having an in-person experience of state, the stakes were still there.

“My favorite part of the state championship was hearing Mater Dei getting second place in a really tough division,” Vu said. “Competition was more intense even though we couldn’t see other competitors in person, so just finding out we pulled a huge result is great.”

Guiding Vu and the rest of the team through regionals and state, coach and English teacher Anna-Lisa George goes over how the competition actually works, and the journey they take to get there. Though it may seem like simple test-taking from the outside, the process is long and complex.

“There’s 10 different events,” George said. “…the essay event is always done at home virtually. So we would have already done that a few weeks ago anyway. And then usually [for] the real thing we fly up Thursday, objective testing is Friday, Saturday there’s speeches and interviews during the day and super quiz in the afternoon and Sunday is awards. Instead, we did the [essays] early in March at home like we normally would. And then they do their objective testing from 4:00 to 6:30pm. So they took seven objective tests: art, literature, science, social science, economics, music, and math.”

Though some order remains in the competition, there are differences to each individual year. George said that it’s a unique experience for both – each team member and herself.

“I’ve been coaching for 25 years,” George said, “[but] it’s different because the topics are different.”

This year’s topic was the Cold War, so the team had to study multiple subject areas on this piece of history.

“We did music of the Cold War era, we did art of the Cold War era, the social sciences of the Cold War…” George said.“It’s really neat because you’re doing something a little different, and they’re also not getting just lectured on stuff. Usually the stuff we study is college level. For literature, we read a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and we read short pieces – like speeches and stuff from that time.”

George said that there is a strong sense of fun that comes with learning each new topic. The team uses games, techniques, and socializing strategies to make the intense education process less stressful and more enjoyable.

“We do a Jeopardy style game, they do that a lot, especially because the early part is a lot of learning material,” George said. “Then once we hit competition time it starts becoming thrilling. And so it’s a little more interactive, more fun. The kids will say that the part that they like about it is the social aspect. But they also love the learning aspect because it’s just fun to be in a room with people who are into it. And you are learning new stuff, so it’s a little different than your core classes. There is overlap and sometimes it helps you do better in your other classes, which is also nice. You get to shine in a way you might not have.”

Being one of the team members that George coaches, junior Teresa Pham is directly impacted by the new way of doing the various championships. The new and unknown testing process was strange for Pham, but she said she found some positives in the new way of doing things.

“Due to recent circumstances, the structure of the competition this year has been rather different and we have experienced some changes,” Pham said. “Usually, our competition is split across three days: one for essay, one for speech and interview, and one for the objective tests. However, for the state competition, they split the objective testing across two days which was interesting, and I wouldn’t mind it happening again. I usually don’t mind how the event is run, but it was especially nice this year as it prolonged the feeling of being ‘in competition.’”

STAND AND LAUGH: Laughing together while they chat after eating their food, freshman Nathan Evans, and juniors Justin Cassingham, Ellie Holt, Kathy Cruz, and Natalie Lopez stand in a circle. With regionals in full swing, everyone on the team needs to use the knowledge they gained from the many weeks of learning. George said that the grading system for the tests they take is not as harsh as one may think. “At the regional level, you can often win a gold medal with a 70%. We can even win medals less than that. They’re definitely important. But they’ve studied the event, the subject all year.” (Danielle Jones)

Before competition time, as stated by Vu and George, the team needs to do vigorous studying in order to better understand their subjects. Pham sees both the stress the learning can cause and the entertainment it can bring.

“Preparing for competition is a long-term process,” Pham said. “Most of first semester is focused on really learning and mastering the information…which makes second semester really fun because that’s when you get to put the information to use. Preparing for competition is very much a team effort, which I think makes preparing for ten events a lot less difficult – and we always have snacks stocked up which never hurts.”

Once the decathlon team had made it through the studying and testing process, the waiting game began while the scores were being calculated. But as soon as that happened, Pham, and the other team members, were hit with a barrage of emotions, one of those being pride for themselves and their team.

“My favorite part was definitely the Awards Ceremony,” Pham said. “One of the main differences in our competition this year was that it was more solitary. We usually see other teams at events, but this year, there was a nonzero amount of teams who had not even seen each other in-person. So, the way they did awards was via a pre-recorded YouTube livestream. I will admit that not getting our medals in real-time was a bit of a loss, but having the whole team gathered together and just having that excitement of seeing your name pop up on the screen, made up for it.”

Consisting of only nine people for state, the Academic Decathlon team’s score was 42,651.5 which landed them a second place spot in their division. Each score is made from the top two best from each category of student – Honors, Scholastic, and Varsity. Pham said that it was an improvement from the score at the regional competition, and that she was proud since the tests were harder at this level of championship.