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Moorpark wins California Academic Decathlon

March 17, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg
  • As Moorpark is named Academic Decathlon winner for the second year in a row, Sarah Thiele and Neil Paik clasp hands with their teammates and cheer.
As Moorpark is named Academic Decathlon winner for the second year in a row,… (Robert Durell / For The Times )

SACRAMENTO — Larry Jones was posing for a group picture with his winning Moorpark High School Academic Decathlon team for the umpteenth time Monday when a thought occurred to him.

"We're going to Graceland!" he yelled, as the students he coached broke into yet another round of cheers.

Moorpark won the California Academic Decathlon championship for the second straight year, giving it a shot at a second straight national title when it goes to Memphis, Tenn., for the national finals next month.

The victory kept alive a remarkable dominance by two schools, Moorpark and El Camino of Woodland Hills, which have jockeyed for first place at state and national championships for the better part of a decade. Since 2001, one school or the other has won the state title in all but one year -- and the winner has gone on to win the national championship in six of the seven years in which they have competed.

Moorpark scored 50,753 points out of a possible 60,000 during two days of competition in Sacramento. El Camino came in second with 49,834, and North Hollywood High School took the bronze medal for third place with 48,016 points.

The Academic Decathlon, which tests student knowledge in a broad array of disciplines, has long been dominated by Southern California schools.

It has been a particular point of pride for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is more often known for its academic shortcomings and just last week was held up by President Obama as an example of a district with an unacceptably high dropout rate.

Four L.A. Unified schools -- El Camino, North Hollywood, Palisades Charter and Marshall -- finished in the top 10 among 60 schools competing at the state championships. Three others -- Granada Hills Charter, Garfield and Crenshaw -- finished in the top 20.

Genevieve Aymeric, the decathlon coach at Bella Vista High School in suburban Sacramento, said the same few schools dominate every year for several reasons, including the "magic" of their coaches and students.

And, she said, "I think there's a dedication. There's also that sense of tradition. And you've got to say there's also peer pressure."

There's also plain hard work. Students at Moorpark have one period a day set aside for decathlon study throughout the year, but then stay after school until 8 or 9 p.m. every night, and spend Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. studying. Then, said team captain Neil Paik, they usually get together informally on Sundays to cram some more.

"Every day is important," said Paik, a senior.

The winner of the competition, which this year focused on knowledge of Latin America, was announced at the end of a three-hour ceremony at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium.

First, dozens of individual medals and team honors were doled out. Senior Kris Sankoran of Moorpark, the top overall finisher in the competition, earned gold medals in five of 10 individual categories, and silver or bronze in three others. Sankoran came into the competition after achieving the highest score in Academic Decathlon history during Ventura County's regional contest.

The top three schools were announced in reverse order, so Moorpark's victory became all but certain when El Camino was announced as the silver medal winner. El Camino students walked to the stage in dejection to accept their medal as Moorpark students sat in a row, holding hands but refusing to celebrate until they heard their victory affirmed.

El Camino coach John Dalsass said his team was "disappointed, of course."

But, he said, Moorpark had been the favorite coming into the competition, after racking up the highest score in the nation during its regional competition.

"They were the better team, clearly," Dalsass said.

As the seconds ticked down to the gold medal announcement, Moorpark's nine team members held hands ever tighter, some with heads bowed. The coach handed a tissue to senior Zyed Ismailjee, who used it to wipe his face and eyes.

When state Academic Decathlon director Ken Scarberry finally proclaimed Moorpark the winner, the students leaped to their feet in a group spasm of jumping, hugging and shrieking.

Afterward, they were off to the state Capitol, where they were introduced on the floor of the Senate by state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), a former teacher. Today they are scheduled to return to Moorpark -- and to work.

Asked when the team would begin studying for the national finals, Ismailjee said, "On the plane."

He added, with a smile, "We're going to be ruthless."

--

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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