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El Camino Repeats as Champ

Times Staff Writer

El Camino Real High School of Woodland Hills captured its second straight U.S. Academic Decathlon championship Saturday after a grueling two-day battery of tests on subjects including calculus, astronomy and the history and literature of ancient civilizations.

It was the fourth national title in eight years for state champion El Camino, second only to J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, which has won five national championships since the contest’s 1982 inception.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 20, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Decathlon winners -- A photo caption with an article in Sunday’s Section A about the Academic Decathlon misidentified Lindsay Gibbs, one of the members of El Camino Real High School’s winning Academic Decathlon team, as Laura Descher.

El Camino, which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, continued California’s impressive showing in the storied academic competition. In 24 years, teams representing the state have placed first or second every year but one.

“We made history,” El Camino team member Jihwan Kim said Saturday. “There’s no better feeling than this -- to be No. 1 in the nation.”

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At an evening awards ceremony at the Palmer House Hilton, El Camino team members hugged and jumped on one another, knocking over chairs, as their win was announced. The nine-member all-senior squad received a standing ovation as they climbed to the stage to collect their trophy.

Out of a possible 60,000 points, El Camino garnered 49,009, 723 more than the second-place finisher, Arizona’s Mountain View High School. Waukesha West High School of Wisconsin placed third among the 40 state teams in the competition. The top three rankings were identical to last year’s.

Each El Camino team member collected at least one award in the decathlon’s various categories for individuals. Micah Roth and Kim, who both competed in the groupings for students with grade-point averages below B, were weighed down with medals.

Afterward, students’ parents said they were in awe of their children’s accomplishments and dedication to the academic marathon.

The team’s top scorer, Laura Descher, who also racked up one of the competition’s best individual totals, persuaded her family to move so she could attend El Camino “because she knew she wanted to be on this team,” said her mother, Sue Descher.

Marc Roth, a special education teacher, said his son Micah’s participation on the team had “elevated his idea of academics by insane proportions.”

“They deserve every one of the accolades,” said Roth. “I can’t understand how 17- and 18-year-olds would give up their spring and summer vacations and work 10 hours a day -- and they are so bonded.”

It wasn’t just vacations. In each month before local, state and national competitions, they studied until 10 p.m., with the families taking turns bringing in dinner, including several Korean and Iranian dishes made by parents who had immigrated to the U.S.

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In an emotional battle, Taft High School, also in Woodland Hills, narrowly defeated El Camino in February in the Los Angeles Unified School District competition, one of 41 regional contests in the state. But El Camino did well enough to secure one of the nine “wild card” spots in the state competition, where it beat not only Taft but also Moorpark High School in Ventura County. Moorpark won the national championship in 1999 and 2003 and placed second in 2002.

Christian Cerone, an English teacher who has been an El Camino team coach for five years, said this is his last competition because he and his wife are expecting their first child. “I feel ecstatic,” Cerone said. “I can’t think of a better way to end.”

The team is expected to fly back to Los Angeles on Monday night, and a victory rally will be held later in the week at the school.

The last California team to win back-to-back national championships was Palo Alto High School in 1982 and 1983.

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Many parents of El Camino team members traveled to Chicago on Friday to root for the team in the “Jeopardy"-style Super Quiz, which El Camino won. The decathlon’s only public competition, the Super Quiz counts for just 4% of the total score in the 10-event contest.

At a reception Friday night, where students danced in a tight circle to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” El Camino team member Benjamin Farahmand said he couldn’t relax or eat -- he was too nervous, awaiting both his individual as well as the team’s scores.

California teams’ participation in the decathlon, which does not receive government or district funding, was imperiled last fall when contributions plummeted due to a soft economy. As a result, officials threatened to cancel this year’s state competition.

But after an article in The Times, several individuals and private firms donated about $250,000 to support the program.

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El Camino coaches will begin recruiting their new team in June to start cramming about the 2006 theme: the Renaissance.


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