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Team Hailed, Then It's Farewell

Competition: Moorpark Academic Decathlon squad gets a royal send-off as it heads for the nationals in Phoenix.


Somewhere between the standing ovations and the limousine ride, members of Moorpark High School's Academic Decathlon team looked at each other in confusion.

Could all this fanfare really be for us?

At the rally in the high school stadium Tuesday morning, supporters said they couldn't do enough for the hard-working Moorpark team, which will represent California in the U.S. Academic Decathlon, which starts today in Phoenix.

"These students represent the very best of Moorpark--they work hard, they are humble, smart and they are cool," Moorpark Unified School District Supt. Frank DePasquale told the crowd of 2,300 cheering students. "No matter what happens in Phoenix, I guarantee you this team will come home to a hero's welcome."

Student body President Albert Hwu and a crew of helpers were at school before 7 a.m. Tuesday putting up hand-painted posters, hanging green-and-yellow streamers and creating an arch of balloons for the team to sit under.

He acknowledged that the task was assigned by Principal Anna Merriman, who also arranged for a sleek, white stretch limo to take the students and their coaches to the airport afterward.

Still, Albert said he and fellow students genuinely wanted to wish the team well. "This is big," he said.

For the decathletes, a win in Phoenix this weekend would be big in several ways.

It would be the second time that Moorpark High--the small town's only high school--took the national title in four years. The first was in 1999, when most of the current team members were freshmen.

It could also mark the end of a storied coaching career for teacher Larry Jones, who has said he may retire from "acadeca" after this year because of sheer exhaustion.

He quit once before, after the 1999 championship, in part because he believed the U.S. Academic Decathlon organization was turning the competition into a canned event that did not promote critical thinking. But he returned to coach Moorpark to a second-place finish in the 2001 state decathlon.

Also, the team has a significant handicap this year, Jones said, because students are scheduled to compete first in interviews, one of the key events.

It's widely known that going first means lower scores, Jones said, and it could cost the team up to 1,000 points (last year's national champ, El Camino Real High of Woodland Hills, scored 46,547 but won by a mere 21 points). But Jones said his students have tried to make up for it, having spent at least 12 hours a day cramming during spring break.

"A year ago I started selecting this team, and back then I knew these nine were something special," Jones said at the rally. "They've given this thing everything they have."

This year's Academic Decathlon, themed "Understanding Others," will test high school students in seven subjects, with topics ranging from Shakespeare's sonnets to statistics.

Fifty-five teams from 38 states will compete today through Friday in Phoenix, with the winner to be announced at a banquet Saturday evening.

At nationals, the toughest competition for California teams typically comes from Illinois and Texas.

But the nine teenagers from Moorpark said they won't sweat the competition and instead will focus on the task at hand.

"We're ready," said team captain Dean Reich.

Since last fall, he and teammates Julie Bristol, Nathaniel Jones, Michelle Kim, Johnny Mendoza, Sheena Sidhu, Andy Song, Sergio Suarez and Jerome Yang have spent hundreds of hours poring through study materials, reciting speeches, writing essays and taking practice quizzes.

The rigorous study schedule has left virtually no time for social events, and they have missed vacations and given up sports.

"For a while I was thinking I would be bummed not to have a spring break my senior year," Bristol said. "But then my friends reminded me, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

If anyone can attest to the students' dedication, it's their parents, who say they have hardly seen their children in the last several days.

"It's been a harried week between studying and trying to pack for the trip," said Sergio's mother, Juanita Suarez. "Like all the kids, he's up past midnight every night and up early in the morning. They're like shadows."

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