With just one question left in the Super Quiz, Eugene Chen could taste the tension in the crowd-filled Westminster High School gym on Feb. 6.
The last representative of Dana Hills High to take the floor, Chen found his team just one point behind rival Foothill in the last event of the Orange County Academic Decathlon. It was up to him, and he knew it.
The question: "Imagine you are in a steep bank in a stable airplane. What control input should you make to maintain your altitude?"
Chen and 23 other students from high schools across the county waited silently as the master of ceremonies read off the possible answers.
With 500 spectators looking on and with the proctor peering over his shoulder, Chen penciled in the "D" bubble on his answer sheet.
Seconds later, the buzzer sounded.
"Pencils up," echoed the loudspeaker. "The correct answer is 'D'--Pull back on the yoke."
Yes! Chen was right, and Dana Hills finished with 23 points. But as luck would have it, the Foothill competitor was right, too, and pulled off a 24.
When the teams left that day, Dana Hills believed that it had finished fourth in the Super Quiz event, behind Foothill, Loara and Los Alamitos.
However, scores that day were not final, and the teams had to wait for last Thursday's awards banquet to find out who the real winners were.
"It's very intense," said Tim Dunn, one of two Dana Hills decathlon coaches.
The Super Quiz, the only one of the day's 10 events that takes place before spectators, concluded the 20th annual OCAD finals.
What does it take to be successful in such a comprehensive event?
"You think (high school) finals are tough," Dunn said. "Imagine studying for this. We prepare outlines, we research. . . . It's something like studying for a separate course in regards to time spent."
For Dana Hills, it has been time well spent. Placing consistently in the top 10 in the county and having won the state championship in 1976, the Dolphins have a winning tradition.
"We're always in the hunt for first," Dunn said. "We've only been out of the top five once or twice ever. We're always considered one of the teams to beat."
It was with this legacy that nine Dana Hills students, after finishing second in their division in the county preliminaries, joined hundreds of other teen-agers for the finals.
After the preliminary tests, speeches and interviews came the Super Quiz, the day's topper.
Some participants were ostentatious, many were subdued, some were noticeably terrified.
It was a test of knowledge, but just as importantly a gauge of strength under pressure. With the crowds yelling and the buzzer buzzing, traditional academics were out the window.
"I was just thinking about how I would feel if I choked like I did in prelims," said Scott Goffman, who subsequently answered five of five questions correctly for Dana Hills.
Others didn't walk away as happy.
"I could have done much better," said Dana Hills' Allen Chen, who answered four of five correctly. "I made a stupid mistake on an easy question."
Said Marv Sherrill, the other Dana Hills coach: "Nerves accounted for a lot of dumb mistakes. Still, we have an outside chance for first, second or third. Our science scores were low, but I think we have the highest score in economics."
At the awards banquet, the Dana Hills team discovered that it had finished tied for first with Loara in the Super Quiz competition and in seventh place in the overall competition.