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Quiz Showing Boosts Valley Team's Hopes


ATLANTA — El Camino Real High School tied for first place with a strong team from Arizona on Saturday in a key portion of the brain-draining Super Quiz contest at the U.S. Academic Decathlon, bringing the Woodland Hills whiz kids one step closer to capturing the national title that eluded their school four years ago.

"We're absolutely thrilled," said Sharon Markenson, El Camino's co-coach. "This is a needed boost and it's an encouraging sign."

The Super Quiz is split into two multiple-choice tests. One is administered privately early in the day, and then, in the only public portion of the entire competition, the contestants field a second round of questions during the afternoon in front of hundreds of wildly cheering coaches, friends and family.

El Camino and Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz., took top honors in the public portion of the event after each team scored 39 out of a possible 45 points. Pennsylvania placed second with 38 points, and teams from Texas and Illinois tied for third by racking up 36 points each.

Although the winner of the Super Quiz often goes on to sweep the entire competition, members of the El Camino team appeared less than confident following their victory, despite the fact that their archrivals from J. Frank Dobie High School in Houston had tied for third.

The reason: the Houston team was handicapped from the start because one of their students had resigned earlier during the year, so only eight students were available to compete. Had Houston been playing with a standard nine-member team the event's outcome would have undoubtedly been different, observers said.

"I'm sure if Texas was up and running with a full team they would be in first place right now," said El Camino's head coach, David Roberson. "They had a really strong varsity team. Where they came from I don't know, maybe an alien planet?"

As a result, it was a bittersweet victory for the El Camino team, whose members were all too aware that their chief rival was short a player. In the overall competition, however, the Texas handicap should have little effect. Only the top six scores from each nine-member team are tabulated into its final point total, while in the public part of Super Quiz, the scores of all team players are counted.

"Our win today is icing on a cake that doesn't exist," said Kasra Torabi, a member of the El Camino team.

"This really isn't an indicator of how strong our team is," added Eldar Brodski. "The big showdown is going to be on Sunday during the awards banquet."

Team member Matthew Backes voiced "cautious confidence" in El Camino's chances of being named national champions at an awards ceremony today. But Justin Weaver quickly downgraded Backes' prediction.

"We're pessimistically optimistic," Weaver said. "It's going to be the closest awards banquet in the history of the U.S. Academic Decathlon. That's my only guess."

While the kids may not have fully relished their victory, their parents certainly did.

"Congratulations, baby, you did a great job," said a jubilant Henry Stefanotty as he hugged his daughter, Jenny, who responded by quickly pointing out that she missed an answer during the Super Quiz.

"I'm very upset," said Stefanotty, a classic overachiever. "But at least it's over now."

Deborah Dubin, the mother of El Camino's Sarah Sabolek, also praised her daughter's performance.

"I think she did very well," Dubin said. "She was so focused and intent it was refreshing."

"That's only because you can't generate the same enthusiasm in me to clean my room" teased Sarah, who was one of four students from El Camino to rack up a perfect score during the Super Quiz.

The theme of the event was the United Nations, and the decathletes needed to know, for example, that the status of women is a major concern of the Economic and Social Council, and that the International Court of Justice meets in The Hague.

During the public portion of the Super Quiz, team members had seven seconds to respond to questions by punching their answers into a computer pad. After the correct answer was announced, the team's score was flashed on a huge screen--triggering screams and cheers from the crowd.

Each time Sarah learned she had answered correctly, she threw her fist in the air. Justin waved his good luck stick that he found on the El Camino Real roof one day while studying on a deck there.

Many of the students planned to celebrate the end of the 10-event competition Saturday by eating out and attending a decathlon dance with their friends and family. The tension will kick back in today when the winner is announced.

Some are predicting a victory for Texas.

"Honestly, I think it will be Texas, California and then Arizona," said Heather Webster, who coaches the Arizona team. "I don't think California can catch up with the Texas team."

The rivalry between Texas and California began back in 1992, the year that Dobie High School was crowned national champions over a fourth-place El Camino. After each team won its state academic decathlons this year, they faxed each other their point totals and have been eyeing each other ever since.

If the Houston team's third-place finish in the Super Quiz bothered Dobie's head coach, Richard Golenko, he didn't let it show. Noting that the public portion of the Super Quiz accounts for only 4% of each team's total score, Golenko said, "We knew we weren't going to win it anyway so it didn't matter."

* TOP LAUSD JOB: Filling superintendent's post a difficult task. A30

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