A small but exuberant celebration hailed the return of the almost-conquering heroes of El Camino Real High School's Academic Decathlon team Sunday as they arrived home after their second-place finish in the national finals.
Twenty balloon- and flower-bearing supporters cheered, "You're our champions!" as the bus carrying the nine weary students pulled into the school parking lot after an eight-hour drive from St. George, Utah, where the competition was held.
The well-wishers included such proud parents as Joe and Alicia Moses, who had returned from St. George a day earlier after watching their daughter Jackie, a junior, compete.
"I was nail-biting nervous," Joe Moses said. "In our eyes, they're winners."
Jackie's friends Aurelia D'Antonio and Sarah Schnieder brought flowers and gifts for Jackie. "I got her an Albert Einstein card because I thought that would be fitting," Aurelia said.
As Jackie hopped off the bus clutching the weighty second-place trophy with its glistening crystal torch on top, Aurelia hugged her.
"I was crying on Friday," Aurelia told her friend, referring to the day James E. Taylor High School of Texas edged out El Camino in the pivotal Super Quiz competition.
But team members weren't dwelling on Taylor's record-setting 52,260-point win, which surpassed El Camino's score of 49,520.
In fact, they befriended the Texas brainiacs and "hung out with them until 4 in the morning," team member Adi Zarchi, a junior, said. "We just had fun. No one wanted to talk about the competition once it was over."
The Alaska state team was a big hit as well, he said. They started a water gun battle at the hotel where all the teams were staying.
Adi, carrying one of many boxes of study materials out of the bus, proclaimed that he was going to burn his notes in a bonfire. But he might well be back in the competition next year.
"At first, I had thought I wasn't going to do it again next year, but then I saw the trophy. I thought, 'Maybe next year, we'll make things different,' " he said with a gleam in his eye. "Maybe we won't be bringing home a second-place trophy."
Team co-coach David Roberson said he was sad to have finished his last competition--he returns to teaching next year--but was proud of his team for beating third-place Illinois by more than 1,500 points.
Team member Steve Chae, a junior, proudly wore a U.S. Academic Decathlon sweatshirt in the 80-degree heat as he carried his four medals.
"It was more work than I'd ever thought it would be, but I've met eight people I'm never going to forget, and I've learned a lot about myself," he said. "My brain is frying right now, but I do feel smarter. I've learned a lot."
The other members of the team are Michal Engelman, Robert Magee, Tamara Miller, Mike Montgomery, Roger Rees and Dawn Robinson.