CYPRESS — In an unexpected and exciting finale to the two-day Academic Decathlon national championship Friday, Moorpark High School's "aca-deca" team tied for first place in the Super Quiz event.
Despite having only eight students--one fewer than the other squads--Moorpark's decathletes beat 37 other schools and tied with James E. Taylor High School of Katy, Texas. During the oral contest, Moorpark's students answered 35 of 40 questions correctly, with five students racking up perfect scores.
The performance may help Moorpark's chances to win the national title when final results are announced Sunday morning. Moorpark's main rivals for the title--which is rewarded with trophies and scholarship money--are Texas, Wisconsin and Illinois.
"This is a miracle," said Moorpark co-coach Michelle Bergman. "They were resigned to losing this event, because they didn't think they had a prayer. There was supposed to be no way that eight scores could beat nine."
The subject of the Super Quiz was the brain, with decathletes taking turns answering five multiple-choice questions each about biophysics, neurotransmitters, dopamine receptors, hormones and cognitive behavior. The questions were read aloud and displayed on two large television screens.
One round posed this query: "Approximately what percent of our brain's mass does the cortex occupy?" In a tense and silent seven seconds after the question was posted, students marked their answers on a scantron device.
An announcer read the correct answer, 85%, and the state-by-state scores flashed on the screen. Every time a Moorpark student got one right, dozens of fans waved pompoms and yelled "Go, California."
Several hundred parents, teachers and students packed Grace Church in Cypress for the afternoon events, holding posters and pendants and snapping photographs of the students. About 100 Moorpark fans, including Moorpark Principal Max Friedman and all the parents of team members, drove down from Ventura County to cheer on the decathletes.
"These kids did absolutely outstanding," Friedman said. "No one could ask more from them."
"This is the most exciting thing that has happened to Moorpark," said Debbie Gibbs, whose daughter, Shana, was on Moorpark's "B" team, which could not compete in the state finals because of an obscure rule. "And I've lived there for 21 years."
While the popular Super Quiz relay event draws large crowds, the points account for only 4% of a team's overall scores. Decathlon competitors also give speeches, participate in interviews, write essays and take tests in art, music, math, economics, social science and literature. The last of those tests were taken Friday morning at Cal State Fullerton.
After Alexandra Dove came out of the exam room during the break, co-coach Bergman asked her, "Perfect 1,000 on art?"
"Just shy," she said happily.
Although the Moorpark students were confident about how hard they had studied, they still took advantage of a few minutes between tests to review. Ari Shaw looked over a study guide on ancient civilizations, while Valerie Lake crammed for questions on Emily Dickinson.
After the Super Quiz, the eight Moorpark students--Shaw, Lake, Dove, Arturo Barragan, John Ellis, Nick Lange, Mitul Patel and Rebecca Wershba--celebrated the end of a long year of hard-core studying by giving each other high-fives and hugging their coaches, Bergman and Larry Jones. Then they congratulated the Texas team and headed to their hotel to relax.
Now that the competition is all over, Alexandra said, she plans to take "an extremely long nap, watch television, read a book and do everything I haven't been able to do for two years."
Many of the students gave up other extracurricular activities, including band, football and drama, to commit hundreds of after-school and weekend hours to reading "Remains of the Day," analyzing Picasso and researching ancient India.
"They have passions besides decathlon," Bergman said. "But this was their goal. It's dedication beyond belief."
And that dedication has paid off. In February, the team won the county competition. Then in March, they beat reigning national champions from El Camino High School in Woodland Hills to win the statewide contest. Now, they are representing California in the national finals, which has brought about 400 students from around the nation to Orange County.
Several coaches, including Moorpark's Jones, said the Academic Decathlon is far from perfect. Jones protested one of the art questions, saying that it had two correct answers, but decathlon officials rejected his protest.
"You can't ask kids to jump hoops all year long, and then it's just a crap shoot at the end," he said.
Although some of the students agreed, they were too thrilled--and exhausted--to discuss it Friday afternoon.
"I liked the journey, but it's a relief that it's over," Valerie said. "Now we can go to Disneyland tomorrow and have fun and just see what happens Sunday."