Taft High Wins State Academic Decathlon Title

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A team of nine students from Taft High School in Woodland Hills overcame 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 the 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 received 46,213. In third place was West High School from Torrance with 45,756 points. University High School of West Los Angeles--a wild-card entry this year--was fifth with a score of 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 interview, essay-writing and speech-giving skills. The Taft squad, which swept the Los Angeles Unified School District contest last fall, also claimed the Super Quiz, a high-stakes portion of the decathlon where youths match wits in a game-show-like setting.

By winning the state crown, Taft secured a berth in the national finals, to be held in Phoenix at the end of April. But few members of the team allowed themselves to look ahead Sunday as they clapped 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 told the nerve-racked Taft crew that they had nabbed the crown.

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. In all, he and his teammates took home 15 individual medals, six of them gold.

However, competitors from Laguna Hills, Torrance and San Diego County seemed to troop onstage for medals more often than their Taft counterparts throughout Sunday's awards ceremony, prompting ever-grimmer expressions on the faces of the Woodland Hills students, who had superstitiously sat themselves at the table in exactly the same configuration as at the district awards banquet in hopes of duplicating their winning performance.

Teammate Leonard An, 18, bent a spoon in half in his nervousness. Hoag clutched his hands, or at times a napkin, to his face. Others hunched their shoulders, stared at their half-eaten meals and drew their lips tight.

"We had no idea what to expect," a red-eyed Mara Weiss, 17--the only girl on the team--said afterward. "Our principal kept telling us not to be too worried about the individual medals."

He was right. Wilson, who has guided Taft's decathlon teams for the past four years, also attributed the success of his young charges to their all-around talent and a deep camaraderie that has bound the youths together.

"It's the unity and the depth" of the entire crew, he said. "We work as a team--we don't have individual stars."

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 Starring Johnny Carson." Sunday's state championship was Wilson's first.

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

"They really deserved to win," added Kelly Vogt, 17, of University High, whose team members graciously leaped to their feet in applause when their rivals from north of Mulholland Drive were declared the winners. "They consistently do well. I'm much happier they won than if it were anyone else."

The Taft parents, too, were elated, although for Michelle Weiss, Mara's mother, another round of competition means more of the same anxiety that plagued her throughout the weekend.

"I haven't eaten for days," Weiss said with a laugh. "It's the best diet anyone could have."

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