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Moorpark High a smart bet to win another Academic Decathlon

April 19, 2009|Seema Mehta

Moorpark High School is on spring break. The campus is quiet, the classrooms locked and the athletic fields still. But Room M4 is abuzz as nine students spend nearly every waking minute studying the art of Latin America, revisiting arcane economic theory and perfecting speeches.

They are the team-to-beat Academic Decathlon whizzes who defeated every other competitor in the state earlier this year and will leave for Memphis on Monday to represent California in the national contest.

"This is everything we've been working toward," said junior Scott Buchanan, 16. "From that first [team] meeting, we've always had our eye on this."

The classroom where they meet belongs to history teacher Larry Jones, who has coached the school's decathlon teams since 1991. Trophies line shelves, medals dangle from the ceiling, and every inch of wall is covered with certificates, plaques and team photos. Moorpark, which has won three national championships -- including last year's -- is a powerhouse in the world of Academic Decathlon.

In Memphis, 35 teams from across the nation and one from London will compete in a grueling series of speeches, interviews, "Jeopardy!"-style quizzes and tests on subjects including math, social science, language and literature, art, economics and music. Many questions will involve this year's theme, Latin America.

Senior Kris Sankaran became interested in the Academic Decathlon in 2003, when the Moorpark team won the national title and visited his middle school wearing their medals. He now boasts the highest individual score in the event's history: 9,462 points out of 10,000 total.

"It's like batting .500 in baseball. It's impossible, but he did it somehow," Jones said. "He's the best I've ever had. My son on the 2003 team used to be the best I had seen. Kris is better."

Sankaran's accomplishments are the talk of Academic Decathlon circles. One writer on an Internet forum declared, "Kris Sankaran is a force of nature." An informal poll on that site found 64% believe Moorpark will win in Memphis. The next runner-up, a Wisconsin school, trailed at 14%.

If it sounds as though the team members are a bunch of book-bound loners, they're not. Parents, classmates and the community celebrate their successes as enthusiastically as those of sports teams.

Sankaran and teammate Marlena Sampson, both 17, were selected by their peers for the prom court. A documentarian is following the team, hoping to make a film that does for Academic Decathlon what "Spellbound" did for spelling bees.

Along with the accolades, however, comes jealousy. Rumors swirl that Moorpark team members don't have to take any academic classes, or that every class at the school is focused on decathlon subject matter. Both are false.

"The secret to our success is very simple: hard work," said team captain Neil Paik, 17, a senior. "Sleep is a sacrifice."

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," added senior Michael Fantauzzo, 18.

In that spirit, when Jones proposed taking off the Saturday and Monday around Easter, the students declined.

"We're just focused on studying," said junior Sol Moon, 17. "If I think too much about next week, I just get really stressed out."

That said, teenagers will be teenagers. The tedium of one recent day of studying was broken up by an impromptu water-gun fight across campus. During lunch another day, the students pumped a Kanye West song and danced.

The students are a mix of backgrounds, ethnicities and academic levels. An Academic Decathlon requirement is that each team must have three students with A grade-point averages, three with B averages and three whose GPA is C or below. Finding the perfect-GPA student with stellar SAT scores is a no-brainer; more challenging is finding the smart kids with less-than-perfect transcripts, whom Jones calls "slacker geniuses."

Jones pores over grades, standardized test scores and other information to find those students.

Senior Sarah Thiele, 17, was among Jones' finds.

"I didn't want to join at the beginning. Mr. Jones came and hunted me down," she said. "I didn't want to give up my senior year. But I'm really glad I did."

"I have no regrets," added senior Zyed Ismailjee, 17. "I wouldn't do anything different."

He and his teammates said the discipline required for Academic Decathlon will serve them well beyond the competition, in college and in life. But their minds were clearly focused on making sure they prepared for this week.

They arrive in Memphis on Monday, but Beale Street barbecue and Graceland will be off-limits until the competition is completed Saturday afternoon.

"We'll be locked in our hotel, studying," Thiele said.

"Socializing is not the point," added junior Danielle Hagglund, 17.

Competition among the top teams is stiff, with Moorpark likely to face challenges by Waukesha West High in Wisconsin, Pearland High in Texas, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Illinois and others.

"There are definitely a handful of really strong teams that are gunning for first," said Sankaran, who also competed last year.

The students and the coach note that they are striving to do their personal best, not simply better than other teams.

"We want all [the] kids to do well," Jones said. "I just want my nine to do a little bit better than everyone else."

Sankaran added that as long as students give it their very best, the outcome is irrelevant.

Then he reconsidered, recalling that last year's victorious team met President Bush in the Oval Office, attended a "Jeopardy!" taping and participated in other celebratory events.

"We did a lot of cool things after we won," he said. "Second place doesn't get that."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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