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The Quest for Medals Will Test Their Mettle : Education: The pressure is on the team from Torrance's West High School as they prepare to defend their Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon championship.


Question: What could be harder than spending a Saturday wrangling with some of Los Angeles County's best and brightest in a battle of the brains?

Answer: Entering the fray only one year after your school's team won the county championship.

Last year's academic decathlon team from Torrance's West High School basked in the glory, and this year's team has inherited the expectations.

"The pressure's on us," acknowledged Gene Chuang, 17.

"We know we can win. They didn't know they could win last year," added teammate Scott Fay, 17.

Last year, West High entered the Los Angeles County Academic Decathlon--the largest competition of its kind in the nation--and brought the championship home to Torrance for the first time. In the statewide contest last spring, West High placed third.

On Saturday, a team from West High will face 68 other teams in the 1991 county competition to be held at San Gabriel High School in San Gabriel. West High's nine-member team has been preparing since March by memorizing dates, solving equations, writing essays and practicing speeches in front of bathroom mirrors.

With each week, their knowledge--and the tension--has grown.

"Right now, they're starting to peak, because Saturday is show time," said the team's coach, biology teacher George P. Floratos. "Their anxiety level is getting higher, they're trying to stay healthy. . . . I'm telling them, 'Pop your vitamin Cs.' "

On Monday night, team members gathered at Floratos' home for a pre-decathlon "victory dinner." As their parents watched and snapped photographs, Floratos presented the students with their letter sweaters, white cardigans with their names and a big, gold W on the side.

Each sweater was pinned with a team medal that the students hope will be the first of many.

"On competition day, some of you will win medals. No question about it," Floratos told them. "Last year's team won 24. . . ."

"Hey, no pressure!" one student shot back.

Despite the marathon grilling, this is a team united by camaraderie and a quirky sense of humor. They tease one another constantly. They often follow drill sessions--held every weekday afternoon and two evenings a week--by playing basketball.

If they win the championship, they plan to go to see the cult film "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"--a concession to 17-year-old teammate Miles Elam, who has already seen the movie 38 times.

They have spent so much time together that they often finish one another's sentences. And they are a different type of team than last year's, they say.

"Boisterous," says one member.

"Rambunctious," says another.

Floratos, who has been team coach since 1987, agrees that this year's group--with only one returning member--has a character all its own.

"They want to banter all the time," he said. "I just have to say, 'Shut it down. Focus time,' or they'd do it all night."

The team is divided into three groups of three students each--the A, B and C teams--with the letters roughly corresponding to their academic levels. In the competition, each of the teams will answer questions in six areas, such as economics, mathematics and fine arts. They will also write essays, give speeches and be interviewed by judges. The final event is the Super Quiz, a game show-style contest that is the only competition event open to the public.

Floratos said grades and class standing may not have a direct bearing on how well a student fares in the decathlon.

"None of our C (team) students have ever had calculus, but they can do calculus now," Floratos said.

And to some students, decathlon training is far more intriguing than school.

"It's everything school isn't," Elam said.

In school, he said, students are told, "You must do that." But an academic decathlon is "knowledge for the sake of knowledge," he said. "And there's no harm in knowing too much. There's harm in knowing too little."

Elam, a senior, hopes to attend UC Santa Cruz and become an English teacher. In his decathlon speech, he will talk about how some groups have segregated themselves from society by living in an Italian neighborhood, for instance, or founding an Afro-American museum.

"This is supposed to be the great American melting pot. And all we are is oil and water," Elam said.

Stephanie Haussmann, 17, a senior, wants to study biological and behavioral sciences in college. Her speech will discuss racial prejudice. And 17-year-old Peter Vellutini, who hopes to become a naturalist, will talk about how his family's Latvian background has affected his life.

Vellutini said he has particularly enjoyed preparing for the Super Quiz, which this year focuses on environmental issues.

"It's everything from ozone to air quality to how pollutants work," Vellutini said. "It can be very depressing."

The competition begins at 8 a.m. Saturday and ends with the Super Quiz from 3 to 5 p.m. Other area high schools are also fielding teams, including Torrance High School, and North and South high schools in Torrance.

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