Taft High Team Captures State Academic Crown

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A team of nine students from Taft High School in Woodland Hills outpaced 45 schools from across the state Sunday to win the California Academic Decathlon and the right to advance to the national competition next month.

At a tension-filled awards luncheon here on the University of the Pacific campus, the jubilant Taft squad--eight boys and one girl--was declared champion of the 14th annual California contest, capturing Taft's third state decathlon title since 1988.

"I'm shaking," Taft coach Michael Wilson said, nervously wringing a handkerchief even as he beamed over his team's victory. "Right now I'm completely emotional."

"I feel unbelievable," said team captain Christopher Hoag, 18, beads of sweat still on his face from the anxiety of the 2 1/2-hour ceremony. "That was the hardest three hours of my life."

Hoag and his teammates chalked up 46,903 points out of a possible 60,000 in the weekend-long tournament, squeaking by Laguna Hills High School from Orange County, which had 46,213 points. West High School from Torrance captured third place with 45,756 points. University High School on the Westside--a wild-card entry this year--was fifth with 44,054.

The awards ceremony capped two days of intense competition that tested the students' knowledge of subjects ranging from trigonometry to art, as well as their interviewing, writing and public speaking skills. The Taft squad, which swept the Los Angeles Unified School District contest last fall, also won the Super Quiz, a fast-paced portion of the decathlon where youths compete in a format similar to a game show.

By winning the state crown, Taft secured a berth in the national finals, to be held in Phoenix next month. But few members of the team looked ahead Sunday as they slapped each other on the back, gave full-throated yells and accepted the congratulations of parents and school officials who flew to the San Joaquin Valley to lend moral--and highly vocal--support.

"Let me enjoy the moment now," said Robert Shaw, 17, who burst into tears when the master of ceremonies announced Laguna Hills as the runner-up, which meant Taft had won the state title.

Robert garnered the highest individual score on the team and outperformed all 140 contestants in the B category, one of three based on grade-point average. He and his teammates took home 15 individual medals, six of them gold.

"We had no idea what to expect," a red-eyed Mara Weiss, 17, said afterward.

The victory was particularly sweet for Wilson, an English teacher who began his coaching duties the year after Taft won the district, state and national titles and an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson." Sunday's state championship was Wilson's first.

"It's a big deal at Taft. It's a tradition," he said.

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