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No-Nonsense Taft Aims for U.S. Title


PHOENIX — They've been sequestered in their hotel rooms for hours, deliberating the facts, reviewing their notes, poring over fine points and drawing conclusions.

But these nine diligent Woodland Hills teen-agers aren't members of a jury. They are the ones on trial in the 12th annual U.S. Academic Decathlon that kicked off Friday in the sizzling Arizona heat.

The Taft High School seniors, representing California against other state champions, are among more than 400 youths from around the country who have gathered here for a three-day rite of spring that tests students in a contest of brains, not brawn. The competition examines their knowledge of everything from economics to classical music and requires them to write essays, deliver speeches and submit to interviews--all for individual medals and the prestigious team title.

"It really is grueling," said Michael Wilson, an English teacher who shepherded the Taft crew to victory at the city level in November and the state championship last month.

His proteges form one of the top squads entering the national tournament, which boasts teams from 43 states and Washington, D.C. The Taft students are hoping to culminate months of often monastic toil by defeating the fearsome Texas, Illinois and Arizona teams and recapturing the crown won by their school in 1989.

Since their arrival in downtown Phoenix on Wednesday night, the group has labored in near-seclusion on the 15th floor of the Omni Adams Hotel, scoffing at the blazing desert sun outside and resisting the call of the swimming pool below while preparing for two days of exhausting mental combat.

On Friday, they flexed their writing muscles with a timed essay and slathered on the charm during personal interviews. They gave speeches carefully rehearsed the night before in front of others, and even in the shower.

For a mandatory impromptu address, David Bronstein tackled the thorny issue of how to control graffiti--an apt topic for a resident of Los Angeles.

"One of the judges said, 'Amen,' at the end, so that seemed like a good sign," Bronstein said of his extemporaneous speech during a post-mortem with teammates, still spruced up in coats and ties for their interviews.

How well they did in the interviews was harder for the students to assess. To the surprise of some, a few interviewers strayed from largely innocuous inquiries about hobbies and leisure activities toward more "off-the-wall" queries--including, for one youth, the pressing question of why manhole covers are round.

Fortunately, though, Alex Jacobs had actually heard of that one, and came armed with a response developed with the help of teammate Joshua Stempel.

"I prepared Alex for it," Stempel said. "I told him to say a circle is a more structurally stable shape."

Which he did. Jacobs even owned up to having heard of the question at the end of his interview, which he felt went well overall.

"I had fun, they had fun," he said of his interlocutors.

But none of the nine Taft competitors--who quickly settled down to more studying after Friday morning's events--could predict how their scores would ultimately shake down.

So far they have drawn comfort only from the rituals the team has developed such as eating a pasta dinner their first night in town, just as they did last month in Stockton when they competed for the state championship.

Then there are the various auguries--dreams of dropping a trophy, magazine covers coincidentally featuring historical figures they've studied--that seem to hold some significance, though whether good or bad isn't always clear. Even teammate Mara Weiss, the group's designated soothsayer and the only girl on the Taft squad, cannot fathom them all.

"Mara is the high priestess who interprets all the omens for us," Wilson said.

The decathlon concludes today with a battery of multiple-choice tests and the nerve-jangling Super Quiz, a noisy game-show-type event staged before hordes of screaming parents and school officials. Results of the competition will be announced at an awards banquet Sunday.

Not that any of the Taft students, bracing for their ordeal today, can spare time to think that far ahead.

"Sunday seems so far away," Weiss said.

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