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Taft Drops to 3rd Place in Battle of the Brains : Education: Marshall High upsets team from Woodland Hills in final event of academic decathlon, as participants await results.


Only a few miles from the Rose Bowl, and down the street from the USC campus, another heated school rivalry was roiling Saturday evening at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

After 11 hours of brain-wrenching competition, Marshall High School upset returning city, state and national champion Taft High in the Super Quiz event of the Los Angeles Unified Academic Decathlon, finishing ahead of 54 other teams from around the city.

Unofficial results placed Woodland Hills' Taft third, behind Marshall of Los Feliz and second place El Camino Real, also of Woodland Hills.

"I am disappointed," said an obviously dejected Stephen Shaw, a Taft team member who slumped in his seat after the results were announced.

"I guess I'm a little spoiled because I'm used to winning," said Shaw, who was also a member of last year's championship team.

The Super Quiz, a supercharged, high school version of "Jeopardy!", was the culmination of a daylong battery of test-taking, essay writing and speech contests. This year, students answered three sets of 15 questions from the field of biotechnology.

A Super Quiz victory almost always indicates a strong overall showing, but it is an uncertain indicator of who will ultimately take first place in the decathlon. In the 13-year history of the LAUSD decathlon, 11 Super Quiz winners have gone on to finish in the top three, but only six have been named champions.

Although the results of the Super Quiz were released immediately, the 1994 district champions will not be announced until a Nov. 29 awards banquet. In March, that team will go on to compete in a statewide decathlon in Fresno.

In the Super Quiz, Marshall scored 88 out of 90 possible points, which means four of the nine members of its team had perfect scores.

"The students studied hard and it showed," said Marshall coach Phil Chase. "Finishing first in the Super Quiz is a good indicator of where you're going to end up. I think it's safe to say that we're going to be in the top three."

"We're excited, but we'll have to wait . . . for the results," said James Evrard, one of Marshall's perfect scorers. "We were prepared for harder questions . . . but winning was still great."

Taft coach Arthur Berchin said his team, which finished only five points behind Marshall, would be challenging two of the Super Quiz questions because they were poorly worded and may have had two correct answers. But even if their challenge prevails, it will have little result on the official outcome of the Super Quiz, he said.

Marshall coach Chase said that he, too, thought the questions were ambiguous, but said that they were both included in study guides provided by the national offices of the academic decathlon.

The Super Quiz began with a flourish, the teams marching in buoyantly to the Olympic March, performed by the Roosevelt High band. Students flashed big smiles and threw thumbs-up signs to the wildly cheering audience of about 1,500 people.

When the Super Quiz began, however, the crowd hushed to hear KTLA news anchor Larry McCormick read the first question, which seemed oddly topical given the nation's fixation with the O. J. Simpson trial.

"One of the techniques of molecular biology in forensic science used to exonerate innocent crime suspects . . . ," queried McCormick.

After a regulated seven-second pause, during which each contestant tried to mark the correct answer from a list of five choices, many competitors threw up their arms in triumph when McCormick intoned the correct answer: "DNA fingerprinting."

After the first round of 15 questions, El Camino Real held a one point lead over Taft, University and Marshall. But when second-round results were displayed, Taft and University had fallen further behind.

"It's not going well," said Taft alumnus Daniel Berdichevsky, a member of last year's decathlon team who now attends Harvard University. "They've seen happier skies. Taft has a slogan: 'If we do our best, we'll win. If we don't win, we didn't do our best.' It looks like they might not be doing their best."

Taft's loss of momentum, however, set the scene for a battle between Marshall and El Camino Real, which then trailed by only two points.

"It feels like we're in the fourth quarter trying to run out the clock," shouted Chuck Merman, Marshall's athletic director, to a group of anxious parents and students.

But when the quiz score was tallied, indicating a perfect performance in the final round, many in the audience--including two rows of uniformed cheerleaders from the Los Feliz school--broke out in cheers of "Marshall! Marshall! Marshall!"

And while Marshall, El Camino Real, Taft and other high-ranking schools looked forward to the awards banquet, students from less successful schools took pride in their individual accomplishments.

Fairfax High team member Thomas Arnold elatedly ran to a distant bank of telephones to call his parents. "I got 14 out of 15 on the Super Quiz," he said, smiling broadly.

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