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At academic decathlon, El Rancho High keeps eyes on many prizes

The Pico Rivera school has reached the state level for the fifth year in a row. The students face stiff competition, but even if they don't advance, they know they're winners.

March 16, 2013|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times
  • Students Jaquelyn Escobar, left, Andreas Moghimi and Jacob Rodriguez, from El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, react to answering a question correctly during the state Academic Decathlon competition in Sacramento.
Students Jaquelyn Escobar, left, Andreas Moghimi and Jacob Rodriguez,… (Peter DaSilva, For The Los…)

SACRAMENTO — They stayed late after school and came back on Saturdays and Sundays. They hunkered down in the cramped and messy room that could easily pass as a storage space, covered floor to ceiling with photos, newspaper clippings and plaques to remind themselves of the decathlon success they wanted to maintain.

And they pulled it off: El Rancho High School made it to the state competition here this weekend for the fifth year in a row.

The Pico Rivera school comes from one of the decathlon's most competitive areas: Combined, the Los Angeles County and L.A. Unified regions have 18 teams. Among them are record breakers and national title winners.

Falling under the shadow of such powerhouses as Granada Hills Charter High School — looking for its third national win in a row this year — and L.A. County strongholds like West High School in Torrance, schools like El Rancho expect to do well even if they don't go home as state champions.

A win for El Rancho students is something quite different but just as rewarding.

"We compete against ourselves," said David Juarez, a junior. It's about upping the ante with each competition, pushing themselves and their teammates to higher scores and improving in their weaker subject areas.

Sure, they have rivals: The team has been keeping an eye on Beverly Hills High School, which won the L.A. County competition, and tried to outscore West High. Isaac Rodriguez, a senior, pointed out a high school from West Covina: "As long as we beat Edgewood," he said.

Kristin Oase, El Rancho's head coach, said success for her is measured in ways that are less easy to pin down: seeing a brilliant but reserved student find her confidence, and an academically strong student learn how to be a team player. (The tangible rewards aren't bad either. Bryan Marquez is particularly proud of the trophy from their fifth-place win at regionals: "It just reminds us that we accomplished something great here.")

Oase also can point to the college acceptance letters for team members posted on the wall of her classroom: Brown, UC Berkeley, USC, UCLA. And, she said, a decathlete from El Rancho has gotten into Yale each of the last four years.

The team has nine members, all juniors and seniors, who are picked because of their smarts, leadership skills and willingness to dedicate much of their time and energy to decathlon.

"They have to sacrifice," Oase said. "They have to choose decathlon."

On the 3,000-student campus in the southeast, the decathletes have earned a certain elevated status: At pep rallies, classmates cheer for them at least as loudly as for the football team. They're profiled in the school newspaper, and after the county competition, their names were flashed on the electronic marquee in front of the school.

"You know that it's possible to make it to state, very possible," said Andreas Moghimi, a junior, "and it's the amount of work you put in that seals the deal."

And as the team counted down to Sacramento last week, they were still hard at work — re-creating (as best they could) classic art on sticky notes and answering questions about Russian artists in fast-paced drills, stopping by the calculus teacher's room for a quick review and giving their much-practiced speeches at a moment's notice.

In between art drills, Oase called up Andreas and Monserrat Marquez. Andreas delivered his speech focused on former President Reagan's use of humor ("Reagan's ability to turn opponents' punches into punch lines" was one phrase he used). Monse, as her teammates call her, talked about the less-than-happy origins of some children's fairy tales ("'Once upon a time' just doesn't seem as merry anymore.")

On Saturday, the teammates dressed in their natty blue sweaters, embroidered with their names. They recited their speeches as they walked in a circle around a large room. The students would be before judges in a matter of minutes, and they wanted to run through their speeches a few more times.

It was Day 2 of the competition, and they were feeling confident. Andreas, a musician and drum major in the school band, said he thought he did well in music.

"The test was harder" than at the regional level, he said, "but I think I did better because I studied more."

Jacob Rodriguez and David both came back from their speeches beaming. David had tried to be humorous, and he said he hooked the judges. "They LOLed [laughed out loud] every time I wanted them to!"

Robert Brown was thrilled with the judges' response to his speech. "They went from stone-faced to all smiles."

Jesse Sanchez, however, didn't want to elaborate. He's superstitious and didn't want to jinx himself. The team still had the Super Quiz to face.

The results of that event will be announced Sunday, along with the decathlon's winners.

After the Super Quiz, El Rancho celebrated team member Jaquelyn Escobar's 18th birthday — as well as the culmination of a year's worth of hard work.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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