El Camino wins state Academic Decathlon title

Times Staff Writer

It wasn’t a sports decathlon, but you wouldn’t have known it.

Parents shook pompoms, coaches tried to remain calm and student competitors nervously clasped hands. And then El Camino Real High School was announced the winner of the California Academic Decathlon on Sunday before 1,000 spectators at the LAX Marriott hotel.

“We were pretty much crushing each other’s hands the last 20 minutes,” said Shengya Cao, 17, a senior at El Camino in Woodland Hills.

Squeaking by three other schools -- Granada Hills Charter High, Moorpark High and North Hollywood High -- the 2004 and 2005 national champions heard their point total and cheered. With a score of 50,486 out of a possible 60,000, El Camino had edged out and upset regional winner Granada Hills Charter High by 210 points.


“It was so surprising,” said team member Frank Soberanis, 17, a senior at El Camino. “We knew it would be really close if we did win.”

Coaching the El Camino team for the third year, Melissa Gregorio said she came to the competition with no expectations. She knew better than to get her hopes up: The school had won the nationals in 2005, only to endure a “crushing” defeat to Taft High in Woodland Hills at the state level last year .

“It still seems a little surreal,” said Gregorio, 29. “I’m so proud of them....They deserve it.”

The eight-member team bonded during months of studying such subjects as art, economics and literature.

The students, all rookies in the competition, have spent several hours together after school since August. Starting in January, they studied until 10 p.m. on weekdays, stopping only for dinner toted by parents who made chicken, spaghetti or turkey pot pies.

“The tension is finally off for a while,” said Cao, who also won one of the college scholarships given to the highest-scoring seniors in each category. She said she’s going to have “a good night’s sleep.”


The El Camino coaches joked that they would give the group today off -- and maybe half of Tuesday -- but after that it would be back to work before the team heads to Honolulu next month for the national competition.

The two-day state competition, which drew 55 teams, began Friday morning and ended Saturday night with the Super Quiz Relay at the John Wooden Center at UCLA. The teams have six to nine members, and must include students whose grades average below C.

The state academic decathlon was first organized in 1968. It was designed to include average and low performers to help them develop their academic potential, state decathlon director Ken Scarberry said.

In the U.S. Academic Decathlon’s 25 years, California has placed first or second every year but one, and it has been national champion nine of the last 13 years. Last year, Taft High won the national event.

“They better win, that’s all I have to say,” said a teary-eyed Betty Liu, a Granada Hills team member, referring to El Camino. She added: “Even though we lost, I’m glad we lost to a friend.”

Granada Hills and El Camino are only miles apart and the schools’ team members know each other from area contests.


The El Camino team’s family members were already planning their trips to Hawaii. Soberanis’ relatives leapt to their feet when it was announced that El Camino had won. His parents, grandmother and sister -- who flew in from Chicago -- were planning to buy plane tickets as soon as possible.

“I almost got them last night, I was so confident,” said Soberanis’ grandmother, Mary Ullman, who encouraged her grandson to join the competition. “We are so proud of him.”