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Moorpark Takes Second

Competition: The team narrowly misses claiming its second national title as a Wisconsin school wins.

April 14, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Nine Moorpark High School students fell short in their bid to reclaim the U.S. Academic Decathlon title Saturday, coming in a close second to a rookie team from Wisconsin.

Waukesha West High School scored 48,871 out of a possible 60,000 points in its first-ever shot at the national title, trumping Moorpark by just 579 points.

"I'm happy for Waukesha, but I'm sad for us," said Moorpark student Julie Bristol. "We worked hard, but I guess they worked harder."

Throughout the ceremony at the Phoenix Civic Plaza, Moorpark decathletes sat with nervous looks on their faces, taking turns hugging the team's mascot, a stuffed monkey.

Moorpark had been vying to regain the national title it won in 1999--the first time a Ventura County school grabbed the top honor. Simi Valley High School competed in 2000 and finished in second place.

Last year's champions were from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, which has placed first or second in the national contest four times in the last six years. Schools from the Los Angeles Unified School District have taken home the championship six times in the decathlon's 21-year history.

And until Saturday night, only Texas and California squads had ever won the competition. "We're like the young gunslingers," said Duane Stein, Wisconsin's coach. "We may not be very experienced, but we're fast."

Moorpark went into the finals with the highest state score in the country--48,603 points--and was the favorite. In addition to the team's second-place finish, Moorpark's students won dozens of individual medals, including first prizes in art and essay.

During the two-day competition in Phoenix, Moorpark's students were among about 500 teenage contestants who took multiple-choice tests in six subjects, wrote essays, delivered both impromptu and prepared speeches and gave personal interviews.

On Friday, decathletes competed in the Super Quiz, a two-part event that includes the only public portion of the competition. On a stage before hundreds of cheering fans, students fielded 45 questions on the topic of the Internet and society. Moorpark's squad took first place with 31 correct answers.

One of Moorpark's coaches, Larry Jones, had been worried about the team having to compete before other teams in the subjective interview and speech categories, fearing that could cost the team up to 1,000 points. Jones said before the ceremony Saturday that he was proud of his team.

"They still learned what they learned, and they still have the friendships they built," Jones said. "No one can take that away from them."

The national competition concluded hundreds of hours of preparation for the high school students, who have spent the last nine months learning complex concepts in macroeconomics, memorizing facts from eight decades of country music and reading Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" half a dozen times.

"They worked harder than any kids I have ever seen," said English teacher Kara Bettencourt, Moorpark's second coach. "They put in 15 to 16 hours a day, and this was second to nothing."

The exhausted teenagers slept in Saturday morning and then headed to the mall for some shopping before the real anxiety set in.

"It felt great to wake up in the morning knowing I didn't have to study all day," said 18-year-old Johnny Mendoza, who plans to attend Stanford University. "We're doing all the stuff we didn't get to do before."

Though the competition is billed as a battle of brains, not all decathletes are honors students. The program requires students with a range of grade point averages. If there is a secret to Moorpark's long history of success at the decathlon, Jones said, it's picking the right combination of kids.

Every year he pores through the academic records of every junior and senior at the school, looking at GPAs, standardized test scores and talking with teachers.

Once the team is in place, he spends many hours with them after school, on weekends and during vacations, drilling them on subjects, administering practice tests, critiquing essays and listening to speeches.

He is lucky, he says, because most of the kids have gone through Moorpark's schools their whole lives. "I get a lot of the credit, but I only get them at the very end," he said.

This year's team--Bristol, Mendoza, Nathaniel Jones, Dean Reich, Andy Song, Michelle Kim, Sheena Sidhu, Sergio Suarez and Jerome Yang--won the school's sixth Ventura County decathlon in February and second state championship last month.

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