PICO RIVERA — There was a drummer whose academic strength lay in fine arts and language, a saxophone player who knew more about space exploration than most adults, and a drama student for whom speech and interviewing skills were second nature.
In all, there were 10 El Rancho High School students with enough smarts to carry on the school's tradition of excellence in the Southeast Region of the 1990 Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon.
For the second time in the last three years, El Rancho High School students have won the Southeast Region of the county decathlon, the nation's largest academic contest. The group of 10 students last month beat out competitors from 20 other high schools in the challenging contest that included such questions as: "What country made the mechanical arm for the space shuttle?" "What was George Bush doing when Nixon resigned?" and "Who was the fifth Beatle?"
El Rancho High School won the Southeast Region in 1988, and last year placed second to Cerritos High School. In overall county standings this year, the El Rancho team placed 14th out of 83 schools.
"We're excited," El Rancho Principal David Verdugo said. "We compete against some schools with outstanding reputations. . . . The results speak for the entire school."
The team members are juniors Joanne Szeto, Matthew Walker, Sheila Panganiban, Demosthenes Spiropoulos, Mai T. Le and Federico Moran, and seniors Ernesto Carreon, Marisol Pugliese, Jay Boyette and Michael Weinholt.
The team members attributed their victory to hard work, team spirit and plain common sense.
"A lot of it is logic," said Weinholt, who was the region's top scorer in the scholastic category.
According to rules of the decathlon, teams must consist of three students each with A, B and C grade averages. The A students are known as honor students, B as scholastic and C as varsity. The 10th team member is an alternate.
The academic decathlon was started in Orange County in 1968. It went statewide in 1979, and in 1982 became a national competition. This year's winner of the Los Angeles County competition, West High School of Torrance, will compete at the state decathlon in Riverside next March.
Decathlon competitors are given written and verbal examinations on subjects including economics, language, literature, fine arts, mathematics, science and history. Students also must give prepared and extemporaneous speeches. In the last and by far the most intense phase of the contest, individual students are bombarded with questions in front of a gymnasium full of students, parents and teachers. This year's theme was space exploration and the decades of the 1960s and 1970s.
Preparation at El Rancho began last May, when the team members were drafted. Some students were selected by their teachers, others volunteered. The crucial test to determine whether a student had the mettle to compete in the decathlon came when school let out for the summer. It was then, coach Doug Anderson said, that team members had to meet at the school at 6:30 every morning for more than two months to study for the decathlon.
For many students, the idea of giving up the leisurely morning sleep of summer to study for an extracurricular test is repugnant, but decathlon team members said it was worth it.
"I think it helps us become more well-rounded," Le said.
The students also said that in studying for the decathlon, they learned to think under pressure and that the intense preparation sessions helped them more than regular classes to learn.
There are more practical reasons for their commitment, as well.
"It looks good on (high school) transcripts," Spiropoulos said.
This year, the team's goal was to beat Cerritos High School. Next year, they said, they hope to become one of the top 10 scorers in the county.