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In Battle of Brains, Kelly's Heroes Find Key Is Being Ready


HACIENDA HEIGHTS — Coach Kelly doesn't do sports. He coaches academics.

Jim Kelly's game is the academic decathlon, an annual high school competition requiring mental strength and agility.

His mission last weekend at Gahr High School in Cerritos was to oversee his academic powerhouse team from Wilson High School in the ninth annual Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon.

As they always have, his team--the defending county champs--emerged as one of the favorites to win the competition. Those results will be announced Nov. 28. Winners of local districts go on to compete in the state competition. The state winners will vie for the national championship next spring in Los Angeles.

"The competition gets tougher every year," Kelly said with a sigh.

There are the Beverly Hills High School students, who don't wear team sweaters like most teams, but arrive in smart suits.

Then there's West High School from Torrance. Their classy white sweaters sport a stitched-on W.

"I hear they have a parent support group," Kelly said.

Claremont High School and schools from San Marino, Arcadia, Torrance and Diamond Bar also arrive with reputations as teams to beat.

Kelly's strategy for competing against 72 other teams can be summed up in one word: preparation.

That's what motivated Kelly to buy about $150 worth of provisions for his students out of his own pocket. His team would lunch on baked ham, raw vegetables with fresh dip, pasta salad, green beans and homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Unlike other teams, the Wilson students wouldn't have to stand in line during the lunch break, in the draining sun, for submarine sandwiches.

Kelly also brought pens with erasable ink. Then there were the cough drops and travel-size boxes of facial tissue.

"They're all not feeling so good here today," he said. "We might have a mass sinus-drainage problem."

Preparation. Since the start of the school year, the team--chosen from applicants last year--has met to study every weekday morning from 7 to 8 a.m., Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. There were two hours of homework for every study hour.

They also met twice a week during the summer. And Kelly spent his entire spring break last year and part of the summer compiling study materials.

Kelly's team arrived early Saturday at Gahr High School because Kelly had a preliminary conquest in mind. He strode to a picnic table under a large ficus tree that he'd scouted out a week in advance.

Here was the best spot for his 16- to 18-year-old high school seniors to rest in the shade between the 10 separate tests they'd be taking: economics, mathematics, fine arts, English and literature, physical and biological sciences, social science, essay writing, prepared and impromptu speechmaking, interview and the Super Quiz, a public competition that resembles a raucous game show.

Before the competition began, Yvonne Cooprider was cramming. She held up her book. "Over 200 pages of fun-filled minutiae," she said, laughing. "We'll probably forget it in a couple of weeks. It's in short-term memory."

In a moment she was serious again, reviewing the names of astronauts who died in space.

Paul Hung was studying the same book without a trace of humor. He planted himself below a tree and slowly turned the pages. Six years ago, the Taiwan native knew almost no English. His teammates remember how youths in gym class used to make fun of the way he talked.

A shy 17, Hung still isn't comfortable speaking, but he's learned the language. And he didn't want to let his friends down. "We don't know how competitive the race for first place is going to be," he said.

Chris Phillips was trying to concentrate on the muffins and fresh orange juice Kelly had provided. "I've transcended nervousness. I'm in state of pure, stark terror," he said.

Phillips, who has started a collection of first editions of horror tales, surveyed the bustling Gahr school grounds. "It'd make a great horror movie," he said.

Even though Phillips works part time at a restaurant, he couldn't help but spill some of the orange juice he poured for teammates this morning. His hands were trembling. He would later score a perfect five in the pressure-packed Super Quiz.

Kelly described his school as classic all-American. "From the million-dollar house up on the hill all the way down to the homes by the railroad tracks," he said. "We have high, middle and some low."

The dapper 48-year-old widower has trained Wilson teams for seven years. He teaches social studies and has a son in the ninth grade.

Kelly's team of 12 has four girls and eight boys this year. His students take a preliminary exam to determine which nine will compete in the decathlon. The other three students become coaches. They also coordinate supplies and compile scores from what Kelly calls the "wailing wall" at Gahr: a wall above a shuffleboard court where scores of multiple-choice tests are posted.

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