SAN ANTONIO, Tex. — The national Academic Decathlon showdown between Taft High School of Woodland Hills and its chief rival, a Texas school, ended in controversy Saturday with Taft challenging the answer that gave its opponent a one-point edge in a critical competition.
The decathlon team from J.J. Pearce High School of Richardson, Tex., beat the Taft students by one point in the all-important Super Quiz, the only public portion of the 10-event competition.
Seconds after the last answer was recorded, however, Taft team member Lillian Morris rushed over to her coach, Arthur Berchin, and urged him to challenge Pearce's answer to a Super Quiz question on the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean.
Berchin filed an official challenge with the judges, and a decision on the appeal will be announced today at the banquet where the winning team is presented with its award.
The Taft team, California's champion, is one of 39 teams representing 38 states and Northern Ireland in this year's decathlon at Trinity University. If the Woodland Hills students win the national title--and the $30,000 in scholarships that come with it--they will become the second consecutive winner from the Los Angeles Unified School District.
If Berchin's challenge is upheld, Taft would be awarded an additional point, placing it in a first-place tie with Pearce for the Super Quiz. The Texas team, however, would not have a point taken away for its original answer, contest officials said.
Typically, the team that wins the Super Quiz stands the best chance of capturing the championship because it is considered representative of students' performance in other events, observers say.
Late Saturday, unofficial results for two of the 10 academic events--mathematics and science--showed Taft with a 20-point lead over Pearce and 380 points above a highly ranked Oklahoma team. The remainder of the scores are not released until today.
'Going to Be Tough'
"We knew the Texas team was going to be tough and that we would have to work hard to beat them," said David Hamburger, a Taft team member.
The one-point lead that Pearce's team held over Taft in the Super Quiz left about 25 Taft supporters quiet and subdued.
Hopes and spirits had been higher earlier Saturday as the California contingent waited in the hallways of the university's Laurie Auditorium for the six-member team and its two alternates to finish written exams in economics, mathematics, science, history, art and literature.
Team members also were required to write essays, give speeches and submit to interviews by pairs of judges.
While the students were busy with the competition, the parents who accompanied them exhibited cases of the jitters.
"I'm so nervous I can't talk," said Brenda Lowy, whose son, Jason, competes on the Taft team. "I keep thinking if I'm this nervous, my son must be a wreck. But I don't think he is. These kids are so cool about this."
Meanwhile, Martin and Carole Hamburger proudly displayed the Taft name emblazoned across the front of sweat shirts that were the basis of his-and-her matching outfits. The Hamburgers said they had spent most of the time sightseeing since arriving in Texas on Thursday.
"We only went to the hotel where the kids are staying once," Carole Hamburger said. "A lot of the kids from the other states were out by the pool. But not the Taft team. Their coach had them in their rooms, studying."
Many youths seized the opportunity to take tours of the Alamo in downtown San Antonio, purchase cowboy boots at Western stores and, as one youth said, "party hearty."
It has been a different story for the Taft team. They arrived Thursday and began a rigorous routine of studying. Even during meals, Berchin made certain the conversation was centered on academic subjects.
The team members have taken time out for receptions and other leisure activities, but, for the most part, the Taft squad has kept close to the books.
"No matter what happens, the team will be able to say they gave it their best shot," said Taft principal Ron Berz, who was joined by Taft's vice principal and other officials of the school district at the decathlon.
If the Taft team wins, it would follow in the footsteps of Marshall High School of Silver Lake, which won the national academic decathlon title last year for the Los Angeles district.
Since 1979, when the Academic Decathlon was founded in Orange County, the event has developed into the academic equivalent of the Super Bowl for high school students.