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Taft High Scholars to Defend State Title : Competition: The Academic Decathlon finals will match students from 43 counties in 10 categories. The school has won three times before.


The nine members of Taft High School's Academic Decathlon team headed to Stockton on Wednesday for the state finals, excited but still worried that they could be the only team from their school to lose a state competition.

The Woodland Hills school has won the California title each of the three times it has represented the Los Angeles Unified School District at the state decathlon, including at last year's competition. In 1989, Taft went on to win the U. S. Academic Decathlon. Last year, the team finished second nationally.

"We're going up there to give it our best shot," Taft coach Arthur Berchin said. "But a lot of the other schools would like to stop us, and I can't blame them."

The Taft team has good reason to be confident. At the districtwide competition, Taft took the district title with a record-high 50,515 points out of a possible 60,000. In addition, Taft senior Daniel Berdichevsky became the highest individual scorer in the history of the local competition, with 9,300 points out of 10,000.

This weekend's winning team will represent California at the U. S. Academic Decathlon in Newark, N. J., in April.

"We're competing to prove that what happened at city (decathlon) wasn't a fluke," Daniel said.

Starting Friday, the students will compete against teams from 43 California counties in 10 events: math, fine arts, economics, science, literature, social studies, speech, essay, interview and the Super Quiz--an oral competition with 10 questions each worth 100 points.

The theme of this year's Super Quiz is "The Documents of Freedom," which will test students' knowledge of readings from the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, the Camp David accord and others.

On Wednesday, lounging around Burbank Airport and joking with each other to alleviate the tension, the students could have been a group of teen-agers heading off for spring break.

Rebecca Rissman sat down on the airport gate's floor and slipped headphones over her ears. Sage Vaughn pointed to teammate Michael Michrowski and told him he looked "like Pee-wee Herman on crack."

Andrew Salter, who earned the second-highest score at the local competition, playfully urged his team members to turn the decathlon's traditional gift-giving ceremony--the "nerd commodity exchange," he called it--into a "mosh pit," or slam-dance.

But seconds later, when Rebecca handed him the cassette recorder, Andrew hummed a Beethoven tune aloud until he could name the piece. It was an impromptu practice, he explained, for the fine arts competition.

And all were able to recite the team's motto: "If we do our best, we'll win. If we don't win, we didn't do our best."

Andrew confided that if the team is not victorious this weekend, they have a backup plan to hide out in Alaska until the fanfare dies down.

"Or we could say that the earthquake was a setback," he joked.

"Yeah!" Daniel piped in. "We persevered in spite of a terrible disaster!"

In addition to Daniel, Michael, Rebecca, Andrew and Sage, who are all 17, competing for Taft are Chris Huie, 17; Sheldon Peregrino, 18; Kimberly Shapiro, 16, and Stephen Shaw, 16. All are seniors except Shaw, a junior.

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