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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Simi Proves It Wasn't 'Just a Fluke' for County

Education: For second year in row, area school beat traditional powerhouses in L.A. and Orange counties to win state title.

March 21, 2000|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Simi Valley High School's victory at the California Academic Decathlon last weekend shows that Ventura County is emerging as a powerhouse in the contest traditionally dominated by schools in Orange and Los Angeles counties, educators said Monday.

That assessment came one day after Simi won the top title in the state by edging last year's national winner, Moorpark High, by a razor-thin 21 points.

Next stop is the national finals in April in San Antonio, where Simi Valley will battle 37 schools from across the U.S. in an attempt to continue Ventura County's reign as home of the national champion.

"The fact that Ventura County took first and second and beat Orange and Los Angeles shows people that it's not just a fluke," said Simi Valley team member Randy Xu, 17. "We can do this, and we can keep on doing this."

Los Angeles teams won the state Academic Decathlon from 1992 to 1998 and Orange County schools won the title in 1990 and 1991, according to the contest's executive director, Judy Combs.

El Camino High School in Woodland Hills has won the state contest three years and took the national award in 1998. Combs said she expects Ventura County's recent victories to motivate other local teams to give the contest a shot.

"With this momentum from Ventura County, more schools from the county will know they can do it too," she said.

Winning the state competition is not easy. Combs said it takes coaches who are willing to devote most--if not all--of their free time to the team.

Moorpark coach Michelle Bergman, who plans to retire from the academic decathlon this year, said: "The coaches have to be willing to dedicate their whole life to it. They have to know it requires long hours."

Bergman, who has coached Moorpark's team for three years, said she learned more about the contest each year. The rivalry between Simi and Moorpark encouraged each team to work more intensely, she said.

"That healthy competition made each coach and each team become better," she said. "I hope that this does inspire other Ventura County schools to go for the California title and go on to national competition."

Coaches say winning also takes dedication from the students, who have studied almost every day since the beginning of the school year. The teams are comprised of nine students--three with an "A" average, three with a "B" average and three with a "C" average.

Simi Valley coach Ken Hibbitts said he chooses students for the team carefully.

"You're looking for someone who's willing to dedicate themselves to studying, who is very competitive and who is willing to work as a team," Hibbits said. "And they have to have the desire to go all the way and be No. 1."

Simi's decathletes are David Bartlett, Steve Mihalovits, Cary Opel, Jeff Robertson, Jennifer Tran, Michael Truex, Justin Underhill, Kevin White and Xu.

All have the dedication needed to win a national award, Hibbits said.

The students plan to take two days off before they resume intense cram sessions Wednesday. And their pace won't stop until the last event in San Antonio, the coach said. Simi is ranked behind high schools in Texas and Wisconsin, traditional front-runners in the contest.

At the national competition April 13-16, the students will deliver speeches, give interviews and take tests in art, music, literature, economics, math, social sciences and science. They also will answer questions before a live audience in the Super Quiz event.

During their short break this week, Simi team members say they will try to catch up on missed schoolwork--and sleep.

"My grades have suffered," Xu said. "I have a lot of work to catch up on."

But classwork isn't the only thing the students have set aside. They have sacrificed jobs, after-school activities and social lives. They have had to make academic decathlon their top priority.

Vu Tran said his daughter, Jennifer, studies for "acadeca" between 30 and 40 hours each week.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "Most parents have to tell their kids to study more. But I have to tell her to study less."

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