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Moorpark Champs Bask in Heady Revelry

Education: National Academic Decathlon winners are welcomed home at a rally, amid feeling that the title 'is an accomplishment for the whole school.'


MOORPARK — Cheerleaders performed, band members played and television cameras converged Tuesday for a victory rally at Moorpark High School to honor the exhilarated and exhausted national Academic Decathlon champions.

Their multiple medals clinking together around their necks, Moorpark's eight decathletes paraded through a tunnel of blue flags as a crowd of students, parents, teachers and school officials gave them a standing ovation in the packed school gymnasium.

"I'm still getting all caught up in the excitement of the win," team member Valerie Lake said. "And people are starting to feel like it's an accomplishment for the whole school."

Principal Max Friedman said Moorpark's win is the most exciting thing that has happened to the community. "These eight students did the school, the county and the state very proud because they carried the torch of the state of California to the national competition," he said.

And that's where, after two days of taking tests, giving speeches and doing interviews, Moorpark's squad beat 38 teams from throughout the nation and became the first Ventura County high school to take the top prize. They surpassed their leading rivals from Texas by nearly 400 points.

Team members--Lake, Ari Shaw, Arturo Barragan, Alexandra Dove, John Ellis, Nick Lange, Mitul Patel and Rebecca Wershba--scored 50,225 out of 60,000 points in the 18th annual decathlon, which tested students' knowledge in topics ranging from calculus to consumer spending. They also won the rookie award, given to the team that racks up the highest number of points among the schools competing nationally for the first time.

And Moorpark students left Orange County, site of the national competition, with thousands of dollars in scholarships and dozens of individual medals, including five for being among the highest scoring students in the nation.

Now, they are celebrating their success and savoring their time in the spotlight, rattling off sound bites for television reporters. The students said it was "weird" and "unbelievable" to see themselves on the evening news Monday night. But several parents said it just made them even more proud.

"I just keep switching from channel to channel watching them," said Paula Lake, Valerie's mother.

During the celebration Tuesday, several school and political officials made presentations to the national winners, surrounded by balloons, banners and trophies. Moorpark City Councilwoman Debbie Rogers gave the students tickets to the prom and told them to "go back to being teenagers and have some fun."

Joel Angeles, chief of staff from Assemblyman Tony Strickland's office, gave the students certificates. Moorpark Unified School District trustee David Pollock and Supt. Thomas Duffy congratulated the team.

And Johanna Williams from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer's office read a letter from the California senator, who is urging President Clinton to invite the team to the White House. "Your achievements will inspire thousands of students to hit the books and study even harder," she said.

That's what Moorpark's team members have to do now--catch up in their regular classes. For nearly a year, they put jobs, social life, classes and extracurricular activities behind to study for the decathlon. The students spent hundreds of hours in co-coach Larry Jones' classroom, burying themselves in geometry, macroeconomics, poetry and biology.

"I'm so far behind in my schoolwork," Wershba said. "It's gonna take a while to catch up."

The students are also preparing to take their Advanced Placement tests, and the seven seniors on the team are trying to decide on colleges. Lange, who is choosing between CalArts and DePaul University, received a call from DePaul on Monday offering him a $28,000 scholarship. Barragan hopes the team's win will help him get a scholarship to go to USC.

Jones said the team's national win was an amazing finale to his tenure as coach. "They won with integrity and class and determination," he said. During the state contest in March, Jones announced his plans to step down so he could spend more time with his family. After the celebration Tuesday, Jones gave his son Alex a hug and said, "Now he gets a dad back."

At the end of the rally, co-coach Michelle Bergman, who will take over from Jones, invited students to consider joining next year's decathlon team.

"This is something you all have within you," Bergman told the student body. "So if this has piqued your interests at all, come talk to us."

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