YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Taft High Wins State Academic Decathlon Title


STOCKTON — A team of students from Taft High School of Woodland Hills claimed the mantle of California's best and brightest Sunday, winning the state Academic Decathlon for the second year in a row.

The Taft team, representing the Los Angeles Unified School District, out-tested Los Angeles County rival West High School of Torrance, which finished second. Laguna Hills High School of Orange County was third.

"Today, we shook Stockton," said Taft senior Daniel Berdichevsky, 17, who took the gold medal for the highest overall score in the 10-event contest, earning 8,937 points out of a possible 10,000. "I feel exhilarated."

Taft's win earned the San Fernando Valley school its fourth state championship since the contest began 15 years ago. The nine-member team will represent California in the national competition next month.

The victory was a welcome-back gift for Taft Coach Arthur Berchin, who left decathlon training four years ago after leading the 1989 Taft team to the national title and returned this past year.

It was also a boost for the beleaguered city school district, which fared poorly in state test scores released last week.

More than 70 Taft parents, friends and school district administrators cheered as team members raked in 12 gold, 11 silver and seven bronze medals for individual events. The school scored 48,974 points of a possible 60,000; West High had 46,278.

Taft team leader Daniel, along with teammate Andrew Salter, 17, had tallied the two highest scores at the city competition. They made their marks again at the state level with Daniel taking top honors and Andrew finishing second overall with 8,395.

More than 375 students representing 43 California regions joined in the battle of brains that began Friday at the University of the Pacific. The first day included written tests in math, fine arts, economics, science, literature and social studies.

The teen-agers were back to work Saturday morning with contests in essay writing, prepared and impromptu speeches, as well as an interview with a panel of judges.

Taft was the favorite going into the competition because of its win last year and the team's record-setting scores in the district competition. But team members said they were worried about the South Bay team from West High.

After a demoralizing first day, with students complaining that the tests seemed unusually difficult, some Taft team members feared that the scales were tipped in favor of their rivals.

A first-place tie with West in Saturday's Super Quiz, a public event held game-show style, increased the stress level among the members of both teams.

At Sunday's awards banquet, Taft students nervously twittered at the table. Team members Sage Vaughn, 16, and Sheldon Peregrino, 18, created sculptures out of their water glasses and lunch remnants. Rebecca Rissman, 17, parked her elbows on the table and wrung her hands.

"This is torture," said Sage, who earned six medals.

But once Daniel and Andrew were awarded their high-scoring medals, the Taft team slowly began standing up, one by one, waiting for their moment to celebrate along with their video camera-toting parents.

And when it came, the announcement could hardly be heard over the cheers of Taft supporters.

"We're so proud," said Jill Shapiro, whose 16-year-old daughter, Kimberly, earned three medals for the team. "They're all great. We love them all."

West High Coach George Floratos said he was proud of his students even though he was disappointed by the school's 0-4 record in the state competition.

"One of these times we're going to win it," Floratos said. "But Taft was a super team and a neat bunch of kids."

Other schools were not as upset by their finish. Bret Harte High School, representing Calavaras County after being the only county school interested in the contest, finished last.

"We do this all on our own--we have no organized class or anything," said Bret Harte Coach Duane Oneto. "My purpose is to expose a bunch of hill kids to what it's really like when you go big time. And I think we achieve admirably on that point."

For Taft team members, who will compete at the Academic Decathlon's national competition in Newark, N. J., next month, the victory means only a short break from their grind.

"I think we get a few days off before we start studying again," Kimberly said. "We only have a month left."

Also competing for Taft was: Chris Huie, 17, who won eight medals; Michael Michrowski, 17, who won four medals; Stephen Shaw, 16, and the team's only junior, who won five medals.

Los Angeles Times Articles