Grueling Buildup for Battle of Brains

Times Staff Writer

Matt Leavitt's weary brain is ping-ponging between economics and 19th century art.

It's mid-January, and the member of Laguna Hills High School's Academic Decathlon team has been studying at least a dozen hours a week for the last five months. He slams shut his 3-inch-thick binder of materials.

"Can't. Study. Anymore," Matt, 16, groans before squeezing Visine into his bloodshot eyes. "There is a limit to what the human body can take. We went past that in, like, November."

Past it, perhaps. Finished? Not quite.

He and other top students at Laguna Hills High are trying to regain the campus legacy as an Academic Decathlon powerhouse.

Created by Orange County educators in 1968 to give brainy kids a competitive experience, the decathlon requires months of study for an event held simultaneously on two winter Saturdays in counties across the nation.

The competition has 10 parts: essay, speech and interview, and tests in seven academic subjects.

Winners proceed to state competitions, then the nationals each spring. The three-day California contest begins today in Modesto, where the teams to beat are expected to be El Camino Real and Taft High, both from Woodland Hills, and Moorpark High.

Even at frequently winning schools such as Laguna Hills, the team is pretty much anonymous. But it isn't acclaim these kids are after. It's the thrill of intellectual challenge in an environment where academic prowess is admired, not mocked.

They relish becoming versatile mini-experts required to mentally finger files and pull up in seconds trivia on coral reefs, cosines or terra cotta.

At Laguna Hills High, Coach A.K. Subramanian's work starts a year before the competition, stalking next year's stars, a job made tougher by a Decathlon rule that each team have at least three "C" students.

"Any monkey can find the smartest kids in school and put them on a team," says the coach. "With the C kids is how I earn my paycheck."

Enter Henry Thiel, who prefers research to writing papers and organizes his homework by shoving it into his backpack. "I was like, what's he thinking? Decathlon is studying. I hate studying."

Subramanian soon wore down Henry's opposition.

"After I graduate," he says as the intensive fall study season begins, "I want people to remember me as someone other than 'that weird kid.' "

Team headquarters is Room 112, near the parking lot, in earshot of the after-school din. There, seven boys and four girls gather in a room wallpapered with posters and art from 2 to 5 p.m. daily.

Mostly, they study individually and take practice exams, the hush broken every few minutes by sighs, muttered swearing. The coach gets gruffer as January rolls around.

To Subramanian, nothing, not detentions or illness, is reason to blow off practice. He fumes when someone is delayed even a minute.

Alex Wong strolls in an hour late one afternoon, after making up a chemistry lab. Subramanian points to the door and tells him: "You have a life, or you stay on the team."

Alex trudges to a desk, his expression treading between chastened and mutinous.

Few coaches would deliver such an ultimatum to the team's top performer a little more than a week before competition. To Subramanian, character and commitment trump talent.

As competition approaches, real life -- finals, college applications and winter colds -- is catching up even as the pressure to study increases.

The team limps along, fueled by a regimen of fast food, espresso and eyedrops.

Matt, the co-captain, often plays disciplinarian. On the final Saturday before competition, he extends a 10-hour study session by two hours.

"If we lost, knowing we were so prepared would take away a lot of the sting," he says. The first day of competition arrives in a blur of pep talks. The Laguna Hills team and 49 others are judged by volunteers.

Most of the kids believed they performed well and went home giddy.

They study about 50 hours over the next week.

On the final day of competition in early February, the kids battle churning stomachs.

"Stare, everyone, stare," Matt urges as they pass last year's winners, Huntington Beach's Marina High School.

A battery of multiple-choice tests consumes most of the day.

Then, the kids enter a gym with 800-some decathletes for the Jeopardy-like portion of Super Quiz, the only event open to the public. In a competition in which most tests involve just a student, a test and a clock, being near their teammates is a welcome change.

The team takes the floor three at a time -- A students, Bs, then Cs -- giving answers to questions on oceanography.

At day's end, the C-teamers admit they guessed on nearly every math question. All faces are ashen as they board the bus.

The team doesn't meet the following week, as scores are computed for an awards dinner at an Irvine hotel. Some kids are eager to drill for Modesto. Others are too burned out to even consider studying.

At the banquet, Laguna Hills' team members ascend the stage again and again, nabbing a combined 37 individual medals. But a fifth-place showing in Super Quiz, the best predictor of the overall winner, stuns them.

"It doesn't look good," says Matt, with a shellshocked expression.

Sure enough, Marina reclaims its Orange County title with a 929-point advantage over Laguna Hills, which settles for second place again.

Matt gazes at the screaming Marina mob and rubs his seven medals. "At least second place means we almost got it," he says."Second place in one of the most competitive counties in the most competitive state? That's not bad. Actually, it's pretty darn good."

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