Hundreds of high school students lined up outside Roybal Learning Center near downtown Los Angeles on Saturday in letterman jackets and the kind of windbreakers worn by Olympians. Members of the Van Nuys High School team had black paint streaked on their cheeks like savage warriors heading into battle.
Instead, the students marched into the school's gymnasium to answer questions about colonization, wars and imperialism as part of the Los Angeles Unified School District's regional Academic Decathlon competition.
The Super Quiz, which is similar to a television quiz show, is the final test and the only public event in the decathlon. Hundreds of spectators — and even school mascots — showed up to cheer on the students. Contestants waved their pencils in the air to signal to their teammates when they answered questions correctly.
Sixty-three teams took part in this year's competition, whose theme was "The Age of Empire."
Based on an unofficial tally, district officials said last year's national decathlon winner, Granada Hills Charter High School, came in first in Saturday's Super Quiz, followed by Franklin and Garfield high schools. The final rankings will come out Thursday, when it will be announced which teams will go to the state competition next month in Sacramento.
L.A. Unified has a reputation to uphold. The district has scored 12 national victories since 1987, with seven in the last decade.
Despite budget woes and other problems, L.A. Unified has been by far the best school district in the nation at the Academic Decathlon. The rigorous competition includes tests in math, science, music and literature.
Richard Cunningham, who has coached Los Angeles High School's team for six years, said it takes dedicated students, not necessarily brainiacs, to win. He said many of his students had low grades but just needed motivation. (All teams are required to contain students with A, B and C averages.)
His students come in on Saturdays and stay until 6:30 p.m. every day after school.
"You need somebody without a whole lot going on in their life," said Cunningham, 76. "They don't go to dances. They don't go to the movies."
Like many decathletes, Cunningham's students said they joined the team to boost their college resumes and to pick up better study skills. They have also become more confident and better speakers and have built tight bonds with their teammates.
Moments before the Super Quiz, they were pumped.
Kristian Saravia, a senior, said he was hooked on "the tension, the challenge."
"You're striving for the impossible," said Andy Ayala, also a senior.
"Dude!" Saravia replied. "You're on fire today!"
School rivalries have built up over the years. South East and South Gate high schools, for example, have a friendly competition going.
Emily Garcia, a South Gate sophomore, said her team had gotten stronger since last year, and she hopes it will make it to Sacramento.
But there's also something else she hopes her team accomplishes. She looked over her shoulder at the South East team just a few feet away.
"As long as we beat them," she said, "I'll be fine."