Jenny Baek, left, and teammate Beatrice Dimaunahan of Granada Hills Charter… (Robert Durell, For The Times )
SACRAMENTO — For the first time, two Academic Decathlon teams from California are headed to the national competition, setting the stage for a showdown between former national title winners from Los Angeles Unified.
Granada Hills Charter High School, the national winner the last two years, took first place in the state competition held over the weekend in Sacramento, the team's third consecutive win here. El Camino Real, a six-time national winner, came in second.
"Nationals is going to be a toss-up," said Cliff Ker, who coordinates decathlon for L.A. Unified. "It's going to be incredible."
In the two-day state competition — a rigorous intellectual exercise in which students are tested in such subjects as math, science, art and literature — Granada Hills scored 56,165 points; El Camino Real scored 55,669 points. "It's essentially a tie," said Granada Hills coach Nick Weber.
The top five spots in the competition were claimed by schools from Los Angeles County, which sent 18 teams from L.A. Unified and other districts in the region. Franklin, Marshall and Beverly Hills high schools came in third, fourth and fifth place, respectively. More than 60 teams from throughout the state participated.
The teams were jubilant after the results were announced in the crowded auditorium at the Sacramento Convention Center. They embraced their teammates and parents, posed for photographs with their trophies and clanked with each step because of all the medals dangling from their necks.
"It's just ecstasy," said Ranbir Dhillon, an El Camino Real senior, "but there's still a lot of work to be done. It's not finished yet!"
Stephanie Franklin, El Camino Real's coach, said she plans to pore over the test results to get a better sense of the team's strengths and weaknesses and figure out which subjects to focus on in the weeks before nationals. For Granada Hills, Weber said his team has to work harder on the speech, interview and essay portion of the competition — areas, he said, where El Camino Real appears to be stronger.
"We have to keep competing harder than we have all year," he said.
Unlike teams in previous years — including last year's record-setting group — Weber said students this year are younger, with more juniors, and took longer to coalesce. But a turning point came in the run-up to the L.A. Unified competition. "These kids really started to like each other," he said. "They started to see each other as teammates for the first time."
The journey to nationals is nothing new for either team — or for Los Angeles Unified, with district schools winning 13 national titles. El Camino Real's most recent national win was in 2010.
But having two California teams going to the nationals at the same time has shaken things up. This is the first year that more than one team from each state has been allowed to compete in the tournament.
Franklin said the hope is to maintain a friendly rivalry and maybe even forge a stronger bond between the students from the two powerhouse schools.
"It's going to make the competition more intense," she said, "but I hope it's not going to strain the friendship."
The students have been at work for months. While other competitors finally get a break, they have to push ahead. The national competition will begin April 25 in Minneapolis.
It's even more of a challenge for Kimberly Ly and Hamidah Mahmud, Granada Hill seniors. They will be heading back to nationals for the second year in a row.
"Getting that stamina, getting that energy, to compete again," Hamidah said, "is the hardest thing we've ever had to do."
Last year, they said, they could let up a bit after the state competition, but that's not an option this time. They'll take a breather next week, but then, Hamidah said, "it will be back to business and back to focusing."
"The pressure is still there," she said. "It's like state all over again, except it's in Minnesota."