PHOENIX — In an agonizingly close finish Sunday, a team of nine students from Taft High School in Woodland Hills came in second place in the United States Academic Decathlon, bowing to a powerful team from Texas that continued the state's dominance of the prestigious national competition.
The Taft squad was edged out by 413 points out of 60,000--the equivalent of about two correct answers in the high-stakes Super Quiz portion of the contest. The team notched an overall score of 47,072, just behind Plano East Senior High School with 47,485 and just ahead of Mountain View High School from Arizona, which compiled 46,867 points.
"We did a great job; we didn't lose it. They beat us," Taft student Robert Shaw, 17, said of the Texas crew, which won the Lone Star State its fourth consecutive U. S. title.
"I'm proud to come in second," added team captain Chris Hoag, 18. "It was really close. You can say 'what if,' but there's nothing more we could have done."
In all, the Taft students collected 19 individual medals in subjects ranging from fine arts to chemistry and speech. The group also took home a second-place plaque in the Super Quiz, and three of the youths won a total of $10,000 in scholarship money for their performances in the three-day tournament, which pitted California champion Taft against teams from 42 other states and the District of Columbia.
Sunday's results--announced at a luncheon in the Phoenix Civic Plaza before hundreds of screaming parents and school officials, including nearly 60 from Los Angeles--capped months of intensive preparation that commenced in August for the Woodland Hills teen-agers.
"The year's over. I'm very proud of them," coach Michael Wilson said of his team, who had hoped to bring back the national crown that Taft won in 1989. In the 12-year history of the event, teams from Texas and California have won every title.
The decathlon tests students in six academic disciplines and requires them to give speeches, submit to interviews, write essays and take the Super Quiz, a rowdy game show-like event in which contestants answer questions on-stage in front of a cheering audience. Each decathlon team is evenly divided into three groups of students with grade point averages of A, B and C.
It was an especially emotional awards ceremony Sunday for Mara Weiss, 17, the only girl among the nine seniors who made up the Taft team. At both the city and state contests earlier this year, Weiss' individual score was the lowest of the squad's three A students and did not count toward the team total.
Here in the national finals, however, Weiss outpaced all eight of her teammates and earned a $3,000 scholarship as the second-highest-scoring "A" student in the entire competition.
"We know how hard she worked from state to nationals, so this is awesome for her," said Hoag, who with his teammates gasped and then stood and cheered when Weiss' name was announced as the team's top finisher.
Weiss herself, who plans to attend UC Santa Barbara, looked faint as her hand fluttered to her mouth in shock and tears rushed to her eyes.
"I can't believe this," she whispered. "It must've been really close . . . I never expected this in a million years."
The team received another surprise when Adam Caress, 17, was declared the decathlon's highest-scoring "B" student--an honor accompanied by a $5,000 prize. Another Taft competitor, Leonard An, 17, who won three more medals than Caress, was expected to win.
"There was no way I expected it," said Caress, who remains undecided between two private colleges in Boston and Chicago.
His individual awards were gratifying, Caress said, "but it's a total team effort. That's what got us here."
Besides Caress, Weiss, Hoag, An and Shaw, the team includes David Bronstein, 17; Evan Daniel Dodge, 17; Alex Jacobs, 17; and Joshua Stempel, 18.
As at previous competitions, the students left most of their meals untouched during the awards luncheon Sunday. Arranged for luck around the table in precisely the same order as at other awards banquets, contestants gnawed on their green cloth napkins instead of their chicken entrees and waited anxiously.
"I'm starting to feel faint," Wilson said, his hands shaking. An English teacher at Taft, he has guided the decathlon team for the past four years, reaching his first national final this year.
His team's medal count began auspiciously, with a gold in the essay contest for Weiss. But the Texas and Arizona teams, California's biggest rivals, kept pace, leaving the ultimate outcome in doubt and the Taft team with a bad case of the jitters.
But "this is good excitement thinking we might win, instead of bad excitement thinking we might lose," said Dodge, 17.
As the emcee counted down the top three schools, team members clutched each other's hands. Some laid their heads on the table. Nearly all kept their eyes shut.
Then, when their second-place finish was finally announced, the Taft teen-agers stood in unison and shook the hands of their victorious Texas counterparts, who sat at a table across from them.
"I give Texas credit. They've got an outstanding program," said Hoag.
With the decathlon now over, he said, it was time for him and his fellow competitors to turn their attention to long-neglected classwork, as well as to try to return to their pre-decathlon lives. "I'm going to reintroduce myself to my friends and figure out what it means to have a social life," Hoag said.
"Now I can talk to her again after six months of exile," added Lew Weiss of his daughter Mara.
All that remains is deciding what to do with the stacks of decathlon study guides, sample tests, papers and notes the students have accumulated since August.
"We've been having jokes about a bonfire," said Bronstein.