Show Time


The nail biting. The racing pulse. The cold sweat. For Ventura County’s academic decathletes, it’s show time.

After months of preparation, more than 160 students from 15 high schools will square off this weekend in the 19th annual county Academic Decathlon. The winner will advance to the state finals in Orange County next month.

The 20 teams of students--five schools are fielding two teams--are comprised of nine members each. At Oxnard High School on Saturday, they will be tested for three hours on their mastery of subjects ranging from macroeconomics and biology to 20th-century painters and liturgical music.


But the event that has nearly every decathlete’s nerves on edge is the oral portion of the Super Quiz, a game show-style event that puts the contestants’ level of smarts on display before an audience of hundreds.

“I feel for the people who have never done it before and are going into this completely blind,” said Kristina Ackermann, a member of the Moorpark High School team. “You just don’t know what it’s like until you do it. I get that cold-palm feeling just thinking about it.”

While the written tests Saturday, as well as essays and speeches the students gave last month, count far more toward the tournament’s total score, a victory in the Super Quiz often foretells the winner, which will be announced Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

In the last eight years, Moorpark and Simi Valley high schools have dominated the Super Quiz and the rest of the decathlon, trading off the county title so often that the contest has come to be seen by many as a two-team battle of the brains.

But after winning the state title last year and placing second in the national championship, Simi Valley was unable to recruit a team coach and opted out of participating this year.

Students often start poring over study materials in the summer, and coaches can work for hundreds of hours prepping their charges.


With Simi’s absence, other teams that have been nipping at the heels of the county’s east county titans are hoping to exploit the opportunity.

“This is the best year we’ve had in a long time,” said Susan Kipp, coach of the Camarillo High School team, which has finished behind Simi and Moorpark the last two years. “We’ve been knocking on the door, that’s for sure. Who knows what will happen? We’ve got a pretty good team.”

But Kipp is wary of the Moorpark team, whose students are spending up to 30 hours a week cramming their brains in the 10 subject areas that make up the decathlon this year.

“I just don’t know how they do that on top of their regular schoolwork,” Kipp said.

Camarillo students study about two additional hours a day, she said.

With all the studying, Moorpark team members sound confident.

“We know we’re prepared,” Kristina said. “This is what we’ve been preparing to do.”

Teammate Ashwin Jayant, 17, said he and the others have seen their scores on the practice tests jump.

“We’re very confident,” he said. “I know we’ll go far.”

Their coach, the storied Larry Jones, led Moorpark teams to a national championship in 1999 and second place in the 1998 state contest. He recently showed his new team footage of the national champs at their Super Quiz.

“I could just feel the butterflies go up in my stomach,” said Kristina, a senior who hopes to attend UC San Diego next year. “I just feel really motivated.”


Jones said he doesn’t mean to sound cocky, but he expects his team to advance to the state finals, either as the county’s outright winner or as a wild-card team.

Team members say they are up to the nationals, if they get there, Jones said.

That event, the nation’s premier scholastic competition, will be held in Anchorage in April.

“I always know ahead of time whether we can win . . . and they’ve had Alaska on their mind since the beginning,” he said.

Coaches of the other teams say they respect Jones’ dedication.

Peter Huybers, coach of the Santa Susana High School team in Simi Valley, is hoping to improve his team’s ranking this year. But he said he is just not as willing as Jones to sacrifice his time for the decathlon.

“Larry is a noble person and he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t love the kids,” he said. “But that kind of dedication comes at an expense I’m not willing to make.”

One member of Huybers’ team, straight-A student Jennifer Nguyen, said she is not obsessed with winning or the Academic Decathlon.


“I know I’ll never be completely ready,” she said. “I just want to go on Saturday and do my best.”