For the past three years, Peter Huybers' Academic Decathlon team at Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley has placed second in the county's annual battle of the brains.
As 190 Ventura County students on 19 teams prepare for a final local matchup Saturday, Huybers is hoping Santa Susana won't suffer the same fate a fourth time.
"I would prefer that I lived in another county where we would come in first," joked Huybers, who has been coaching Academic Decathlon for seven years. "But we happen to be in the same county as a national champion. It's getting frustrating."
That national champion is Moorpark High School, a decathlon powerhouse that has won the county-level competition seven times since 1993 and has come in first or second at the state level decathlon for the last five years. The team placed first nationwide in 1999 and second last spring.
History teacher Larry Jones, who has coached the team for a decade, said he is proud of what his teams have accomplished over the years but welcomes the increased competition among the county's high schools. "I think it means everyone is raising the bar," he said. "They are all really nice kids working really hard."
Kyle Fitzgerald, 16, can attest to the hard work. The Santa Susana junior has made it a personal goal to be the county's top scorer after Saturday's competition at Oxnard High School.
In addition to maintaining A's in all his classes, he has spent nearly every extra minute on "acadeca," poring through the thick binder of study materials several times and reading the designated novel, "Far from the Madding Crowd" by Thomas Hardy, four times.
When prompted, Kyle can rattle off random facts from this year's decathlon theme, "Understanding the Natural World," from statistics about copepods, a tiny marine crustacean, to the exact time and date at which Mt. St. Helens erupted. "Like I said, 'I amaze myself,' " he quipped.
At Moorpark, team members have also put in countless hours studying -- before school, after school, on weekends and through vacations. But they have also taken time to do other things together to bond as a team, said Nathaniel Jones, 17, the team captain and Larry Jones' son.
"An important lesson I learned last year is it's really important to get along together," he said. "We're working hard this year, we've all come together and we're having fun together."
Phil Gore, who coordinates the county competition through the superintendent of schools office, said Moorpark and Santa Susana are among several strong teams this year. Others include Oxnard High School, Oak Park High School, Thousand Oaks High School and Westlake High School.
The fast-paced Super Quiz, the only public portion of the decathlon, which also includes written tests, speeches and interviews, takes place from 3:40 to 5 p.m. Saturday. Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony Sunday.
A chance for such rivalry is part of what draws many students to the Academic Decathlon program, the nation's premier scholastic contest. The format is designed to include a variety of students, from those with straight A's to those with C averages.
"It gives equal opportunity to students who haven't achieved as well in school," said Mike Moradian, 18, a senior at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks and decathlon team member.
He won several medals at the county competition last year, and that is what drew him back, he said. "They reward you in acadeca for your accomplishments, and they don't do that enough for you in school," he said. He said Moorpark's record can be intimidating, but it makes all the county's teams work harder.
Chad Bradbury, captain of Santa Susana's team, agreed. "It gives us something to strive for," the 18-year-old said. "If you have to come in second, you know it's to the national champion team."