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Moorpark High's Academic Team Thinks National Title


Moments before they headed to Cal State Fullerton to compete in the national championship of the Academic Decathlon on Tuesday morning, the eight students on Moorpark High's "aca-deca" team raised their pink fruit smoothies in plastic cups for a toast.

"To the best team in the United States," coach Larry Jones said to the students gathered in his kitchen. "We love you and we're proud of you. Now let's go kick some booty."

Moorpark High School Principal Max Friedman added his support. "No matter what happens, you are national champs to me," he said. "And remember, Sunday afternoon, we'll relax."

"No--then we'll start making up schoolwork," joked team member Rebecca Wershba, 18.

For almost a year, the eight members of the team have been studying for the decathlon, sacrificing many afternoons, weekends and vacations. During spring break last week, they spent 95 hours rereading "Siddhartha" listening to opera, analyzing Picasso paintings and reviewing macroeconomics.

"We put in a hell of a week and we're tired," 17-year-old Nick Lange said. "But we're hanging in there because we have a mission to come in the top three."

Moorpark has a good chance to do just that, Jones said. But the competition will be tough, especially from the Texas state champs, who scored about 2,000 more points than Moorpark in the qualifying state tournament.

"We'll give it our go," said Jones, who has coached the team for seven years and said this is his last. "And if we wind up second or third in the nation, that's pretty good for Moorpark. But we want first."

The Moorpark squad began its winning streak in February, when it beat out Simi Valley High School to win the countywide competition. Then in March, Moorpark became the first Ventura County school to win the statewide contest in Stockton when the team beat out the reigning national champs from El Camino High School in Woodland Hills.

After that, the students took a one-day break before hitting the books again.

Now, 4 1/2 weeks later, they are in Orange County with about 500 students from 48 other high schools for the 18th annual national contest. The Moorpark squad--junior Ari Shaw, and seniors Arturo Barragan, Alexandra Dove, John Ellis, Valerie Lake, Nick Lange, Mitul Patel and Rebecca Wershba--are holed up in an Anaheim hotel today, taking practice tests and rehearsing speeches. They said they may occasionally take breaks to sleep, work out, play instruments or jump in the swimming pool.

The official competition begins Thursday. The students will write essays, take math tests and give speeches and interviews. On Friday morning, they will take more written tests--in music, art and economics. And that afternoon, they will answer questions on "The Brain: Looking Inward" during the Super Quiz, the only event open to the public.

Jones said he wants a huge cheering section for the Super Quiz event. All the Moorpark parents and many of the aca-deca team members from El Camino and Simi Valley high schools are planning a road trip to Orange County to support the team. And Moorpark arranged for a bus to take fans to the Super Quiz. The bus fare is $5. The bus will leave from the high school at 11:45 a.m. Friday and return after the event.

Paula Lake, Valerie's mother, was at Jones' house Tuesday to see off her daughter and the rest of the team. She said having parents at the competition makes a difference because the kids know they are being supported.

The team members piled their bags into two vans, which were already stocked with potato chips, sodas, books and study materials. They also took good luck charms, including Star Wars figurines, a coconut and a lock of hair. And each van was equipped with a cassette tape of opera music with intermittent jokes from the coach.

Team member John, who sprayed his hair red for good luck, said he isn't nervous yet, but knows he will be soon. Nick said he is already starting to feel the anxiety. He said he and his teammates are "nervous with a slight air of confidence."

The decathlon began with a few local schools in Orange County in 1968 as a way to motivate students of all ability levels to excel. Each decathlon team is required to have students with A, B and C averages. Now, more than 35,000 students and 2,500 schools participate in the competition nationwide. In addition to trophies, students can win scholarship money.

This year's national decathlon events will be held at four locations: Cal State Fullerton, Troy High School in Fullerton, Grace Community Center in Cypress and the West Coast Anaheim Hotel. The national champions will be announced Sunday during an awards ceremony.

Ari, 16, said even if the team doesn't win, he knows they have given it their all. And they have become almost like a family in the process.

"Even if in 20 or 30 years I can't regurgitate how many neurons fit in a pinhead, I'll always remember the study sessions and interactions with my teammates and staying up 14 hours one night just to study," Ari said. "It's the friendships and the bonds we've made that will last a lifetime."

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