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Moorpark High School's Academic Decathlon coach steps down

Larry Jones led the school's team to four national championships and inspired countless numbers of students to strive.

July 06, 2009|Seema Mehta

Larry Jones built Moorpark High School's Academic Decathlon team into a powerhouse, led the squad to four national championships, met presidents in the Oval Office and had a profound effect on the lives of countless students. After nearly two decades, he is stepping down as coach of the team he created, prompted by fatigue and a desire to spend more time with his family.

"It's been a great run," said Jones, 60. "I don't have it in me to not do the best I can. The best I can means putting in 11-hour days -- on vacation. That needs a younger person's energy level."

The Academic Decathlon is a grueling competition that includes a series of speeches, interviews, "Jeopardy!"-style quizzes and tests on subjects including math, social science, language and literature, art and music. Teams compete locally and, if successful, move on to state and national competitions. Jones and the Moorpark High team are nothing if not dedicated: They study throughout the school year, on weekends and breaks, basically giving up their social lives.

Students say that Jones' perseverance outmatched their own and that he is a role model.

Jordan Sickman, 33, a member of the 1993-94 team, returned to Moorpark to help Jones train the team after his first year at law school.

"I told the kids, 'I just finished the first-year law exams. Those were hard, but Academic Decathlon was harder,' " said the Detroit bankruptcy lawyer.

California teams have won the last seven national titles and 16 since the competition began in 1982. A handful of schools, including Moorpark, El Camino and Taft, are the most feared competitors. The teams have a friendly rivalry, and their coaches are sorry to see Jones go.

"I would like to have the chance to actually beat him one time. That would be nice," said John Dalsass, who started coaching at El Camino in 2007.

Moorpark was not always a dominant force in "Acadeca," as the competition is known among its participants. Jones began teaching at the school in 1988 and grew frustrated by what he saw as a lack of ambition among the students.

"We weren't sending a lot of kids to high-level colleges. I had kids who wanted to go work at Wendy's," Jones said. He considered returning to Santa Monica, where he had previously taught. The principal at the time challenged him to find something that would put the school on the academic map.

He seized on Academic Decathlon, which was a lunchtime activity. He asked the principal for $500 and a for-credit class period devoted to decathlon. It took three years to win at the county level. Jones knew he could take the team to greater heights.

"I just made up my mind, no one was going to work harder than me," he said.

Sickman said Jones is integral to the team's success.

"It's like a great football coach or a great baseball coach or conductor or a general in the Army. You just want to perform for that person," he said. "It's hard to define. He just makes you want to do better."

The team's success became a source of pride for the Ventura County community, situated 50 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Parents, classmates and the community celebrate its victories as enthusiastically as those of sports teams.

"It's put Moorpark on the map," said Kirk Miyashiro, who was principal of Moorpark High until last month, when he left for another job. "We're 36,000 people, pretty isolated with mountains all around us. It has been one of the shining stars in the city."

But Jones' reputation may be a problem: No one has stepped up to replace him.

"I think it's a little bit intimidating for a new person to try to fill Mr. Jones' shoes," said Kris Sankaran, who is headed to Stanford University and boasts the highest individual score in decathlon history: 9,462 points out of 10,000 total.

Some joked that Jones' wife may see her husband more now; she is skeptical.

"My husband is a very intense person," said Marilyn Green. Everything he does, she added, he does to that same level of intensity.

Although Jones is stepping down as coach, he's not retiring. Under two grants from the federal government, he is running a teacher-training program to improve social studies content.

"It's been a great run," Jones said of the decathlon. "I had the highest-scoring team in history, I had the highest-scoring student in history, and I won more nationals than anyone in history. And I met President Obama," he said. "I can go out with that."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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