For the second straight year, Moorpark High School won the state Academic Decathlon competition, defeating second-place Taft High of Woodland Hills on Sunday by nearly 1,000 points.
Moorpark' s nine-student team, which has been studying since last summer, now will compete in the national championship in Erie, Pa., in April.
Decathletes competed in 10 grueling events focused on the theme "Understanding the Natural World." Competition included essays, speeches, interviews and tests in subjects such as math and literature.
This is the ninth time in 12 years that Moorpark has won the state contest. Nationally, the team won the championship in 1999 and has placed second on six occasions.
More than 100 Moorpark fans traveled to Modesto this year to support their team. They rose and roared every time the team members won one of their 31 individual medals.
Taft students took home 30 individual honors, prompting the members of both teams to gnaw at their lips and nails as the ceremony neared the end and they tried to predict the winner.
When Moorpark's victory was announced, air-horn blasts echoed through the room, boys bearhugged each other and team member Kevin Randolph jumped up and down so hard that one of his medals fell off its ribbon.
Adam Abed, 18, a Moorpark senior, credited his teammates for making him want to study as much as he did this year.
"I just wanted to work hard so I didn't let anybody down and I didn't let myself down," he said.
Moorpark came to Modesto with the country's highest score in regional competitions, 49,693 points. The Ventura County school pushed its score up about 3,000 points at the state level, but even that isn't enough for coach Larry Jones.
"We didn't get 50,000, so we have work to do," said Jones, gripping the team's waist-high trophy. "They did absolutely fantastic, but it's good that there's room to improve."
After a decade of coaching, this will be Jones' last season.
"This is my swan song," he said.
He feels he no longer has the energy to coach, and his youngest son, Nathaniel, is graduating from Moorpark this year.
Nathaniel, 17, notched the state's highest individual score: 9,058 points. Jones said all the team members are "my kids." After the team victory was announced, he shook his fist in silent congratulations to his son.
Although the students do the work, the coaches recruit and motivate them to push themselves throughout the year as other activities compete for their time. Jones is frustrated that no one so far has come forward to replace him.
"We may be national champions this year and have no team the next," he said. "That's really sad."
Other Southern California schools in the top 10 were El Camino Real of Woodland Hills (third), Marshall (fourth), North Hollywood (fifth), Los Angeles (sixth), Palos Verdes Peninsula (seventh), Palisades Charter (eighth) and St. Francis High of La Canada Flintridge (10th).
Other area schools competing were Reseda (11th), San Pedro (12th), Venice (15th) and Marina of Huntington Beach (17th).
Southern California dominated the competition even before it began. For the first time since California added wild-card berths five years ago, Los Angeles Unified swept all eight slots.
The L.A. district schools' performance at the state level was a vindication of sorts for district coordinator Cliff Ker. The state board changed the wild-card rules this year to throw out regional scores in the subjective events because of worries that L.A. Unified judges were inflating their scores.
"That wasn't fair," Ker said. "But we showed that no matter how the rules are changed, we earn our place here."
"L.A. Unified is obviously not such a bad place to go to school," said San Pedro High senior Margaret Galvan, 18, who earned her team's highest score. "People can pick on the bad things all they want, but the bottom line is that good things happen there, too."
Because Moorpark was so heavily favored going into the competition, most teams were striving to improve their scores rather than come in first. El Camino Real boosted its score nearly 2,000 points from its district-level showing.
"We can hold our heads high," said senior Victoria Kim, 17, of El Camino. "The district contest was a wake-up call that we needed to put in more work, and we can really say that when we came here we did our best."