Granada Hills Charter High School student Elysia Eastty laughs, celebrating… (For The Times, Davis Turner )
Reporting from Charlotte, N.C. — Just shy of a year ago, the students on Granada Hills Charter High School's Academic Decathlon team told themselves that they would win a national title. It took months of practice, weekends and holidays lost, and spring break spent hunkered down in a classroom, studying guides thicker than a phone book.
But in a hotel banquet hall here Saturday, the students embraced each other, their parents screamed, their coaches looked to be in a state of shock: Granada Hills was the national champion.
Winning the title required besting their closest rivals, a team from Texas that entered the national competition with a state score just 300 points behind Granada Hills'. (In a competition with 60,000 points, a 300-point difference is basically a tie.)
"It makes it feel like we earned it a lot more," Eugene Lee, a Granada Hills senior, said of winning such a close competition. "It's amazing. It's the culmination of a year's worth of work."
Granada Hills' final score in Charlotte was 52,113.5 points — 1,700 higher than Texas' Dobie High School's. It's California's 18th national win — ninth consecutive — and the Los Angeles Unified School District's 12th, but it's the first for Granada Hills. The 35 teams from around the country were tested in 10 areas, including math, economics and music theory.
The students were stunned by their victory. "It hasn't hit me yet. Maybe I'll feel it when I get back and when I get some sleep," Riki Higashida, a senior, said minutes after hearing the news.
Their Texas competitors took the high road. "Even though we lost, they deserve it," said Tad Walters, a Dobie High School senior. "They worked just as hard as we did."
Medals hanging from their necks, the nine Granada Hills team members posed before a blizzard of flashing cameras. Some of the students — including Austin Kang and Elysia Eastty, who each had at least half a dozen medals — returned to the stage so many times, the event's master of ceremonies, a local weatherman, joked that their prizes ought to include a chiropractic adjustment.
"We've been carrying around a lot of stress for weeks and months, but it's over," said coach Matt Arnold, sitting with fellow coaches Spencer Wolf and Nick Weber during a small gathering held for the winners after the banquet.
"It's mainly just validating that we knew they could pull this off," Wolf added.
Being prepared to pull off a national win became a nearly all-consuming goal for the team. The parents said that basically meant losing their child — in their last year at home, for many of the college-bound seniors. "They came home late at night, dead tired," said Neil Higashida, Riki's father, "and they were back at it the next morning."
But the hours of studying didn't just prepare them for the tests. It was a transformational process, their parents and coaches noted. "I think they are fundamentally different people," Arnold said.
He pointed to the major changes made by each of them. Eugene once hated math; on Saturday, he won a medal in the subject. Joon Lee used to stumble through his speeches; by Friday, he'd improved so dramatically, he was asked to give his speech again in a showcase before an audience of hundreds.
"This competition has given them the confidence to overcome their weaknesses and turn them into strengths," Arnold said.
The team includes Celine Ta, Harsimar Dhanoa, Shagun Goyal and Sindhura Seeni, as well as Austin, Elysia, Joon, Eugene and Riki.
As the school year winds down, the students expect their excitement will give way to confusion: What will they do with this thing called free time?
"Probably in a week, when the high comes down, we'll miss it," Eugene said. "I'll miss it."