Word spread quickly among student competitors when Taft High School’s Academic Decathlon team arrived in Bakersfield last week to defend its title in the annual state competition.
“We were walking through the hotel, and people started saying, ‘Taft is here,’ ” said Andy Rosenthal, a senior at the Woodland Hills high school and Academic Decathlon team member.
But the nine-member Taft team withstood the pressure of the two-day academic competition to defeat second-place Beverly Hills High School and be crowned winner Saturday of the California Academic Decathlon. More than 40 high schools throughout the state sent teams of students to engage in a battle of wits in subjects such as physics, the arts, history and mathematics.
Taft Principal Ron Berz said: “I’m elated. I couldn’t be prouder.” More than 50 students, parents and school officials jumped up, hugged and exchanged “high-fives” when Taft was named the winner at a luncheon Saturday in Bakersfield.
Taft team coach Arthur Berchin, an English teacher, who in the morning had been pacing nervously in his hotel room, was already planning his strategy for the national Academic Decathlon that his team will attend next month in Providence, R.I.
“We’ll look at the results and find out where our weak areas are,” Berchin said.
Berchin picked his team in June and in September enrolled the students in a special Academic Decathlon class that met five days a week as well as after school and on weekends. There were no returning members from last year’s Taft team, which narrowly lost in the national 1988 Academic Decathlon to a Texas high school.
“Our program is intense enough that students perhaps couldn’t do it for more than one year,” Berchin said.
The Taft students, all seniors, said they had all the pressure that defending champions feel with little of the experience. The team first proved itself in November by defeating all other Los Angeles Unified School District high schools in the local tournament.
“This year’s team has a different personality, different study habits, from last year’s team,” Berchin said. “I had to work harder to get last year’s team to study.”
Most of the Taft team said they stayed up all night Thursday studying for the written examinations held Friday.
The Academic Decathlon consists of 10 events, including the written exams, interviews, speeches and the Super Quiz. Slots on the teams are divided evenly among A-, B- and C-average students.
Taft team members placed first in the Super Quiz on Friday, the only portion of the contest open to spectators. It was there, in the bleachers of the Bakersfield College gym, that the parents of Taft team members could finally cheer on their brainy children.
“I’m very nervous, I’m like a crazy person,” said Janet Canter, whose son Shawnwent on to pull the Taft team into a first-place tie after the team was trailing in the Super Quiz. “But he’s used to pressure; he plays on the varsity basketball team.”
Taft team members, besides Shawn Canter, include student government officers and others who perform in school musicals.
“They’re not a bunch of eggheads,” Berchin said. “They’re all popular, good-looking students who live well-balanced lives.”
But even at the end of the contest Friday, few of the Taft team members attended a dance for decathlon contestants that night. Several said they went to a party given at a nearby hotel by Taft students who came to watch the decathlon. Most said they went to sleep early.
“I’ve never stayed in a hotel before so I just climbed into bed and watched some television,” said Taft senior Rodney Crump. “I couldn’t eat all week because I had a nervous stomach. But when it was over, I had a steak.”