By Denise Dick
They’re experts in mathematics, science and medicine, art and music, literature, geography, history and astronomy.
They spend hours each week poring over material in preparation for competition.
They’re Academic Challenge teams at high schools throughout the Mahoning Valley.
Hubbard High School’s team, coached by James Harding, includes nine students: seniors Mark Feigert and Sarah Clark, both 17; junior James Harding, 16; sophomore Mo Rasoul, 15; and freshmen Jonathan Feigert, Connor Harding, Nick Adduci, all 14; and Henry Meckler and Harry Pasku, both 15.
Their reasons for joining the team vary. Some crave the competition. Others heard about it and thought it sounded like fun, while others joined because their friends did.
Each team member has a major and a minor area of specialty.
Connor’s major is literature, his minor, astronomy. Jonathan’s major is geography and math, while music and art are his minors.
The coach, Connor’s and James’ dad, gives each student a packet of information to study and learn. He updates it periodically with tidbits of information he picks up in newspapers, magazines, from television, radio or conversations, carrying a notebook to jot things down when he hears them.
“It’s all about preparation,” he said.
Harding worked with the middle-school team before coaching the high-schoolers and says that, just as with football, it’s important to have a foundation in the lower grades to strengthen the teams in the upper grades.
Competition is tough, and some teams hone their craft throughout the summer as they travel to camp competitions.
Hubbard’s team is young, but they’re getting better.
It finished second at the Hubbard Fall Kickoff tournament Oct. 5, losing to South Range High School in the final; sixth at South Range Invitational on Oct. 19; and second at Carnegie Mellon Bowl on Oct. 26 against Pennsylvania teams.
The next tournament is Saturday at East Palestine High School.
Team practices run two hours, twice weekly, but team members practice independently, too. The amount of individual study varies and depends on the student and the other activities he or she is involved with at any time.
Team members don’t just devote time outside of class to the Academic Team. They’re members of the band, symphony, soccer and football teams.
A lot of students who compete in academic tournaments across the country are high achievers, but Harding said that’s not a prerequisite. Natural intellect gives a player an advantage, but dedication and a willingness to work are more important attributes for Hubbard team members.
Greg Bossick, executive director of the Ohio Academic Competition, estimates there are 400 Mahoning Valley high-school students involved in the academic competitions. He’s hoping more teams register for this weekend’s event at East Palestine.
“This is one of the few nonathletic competitions that are offered where the students earn the points and titles by being objectively, rather than subjectively, assessed,” he said.
Teams of four face off and must answer what are called toss-up questions. They’re worth 15 points if you answer early, or 10 points if you wait until the whole question has been read. If you answer early and you’re wrong, though, you lose five points.
That’s where strategy comes in, Bossick said. Before buzzing in, a player has to calculate if his or her team has enough points to risk losing any versus his or her confidence in the answer.
In those cases, Mo says the secret is listening for key words or phrases that give clues to the answer.
“If you hear, ‘German monk,’ it’s going to be Martin Luther,” Henry added.
If a questions starts with the year 1066?
“The Battle of Hastings,” James said.
When a team answers a toss-up correctly, it gets a bonus question worth up to 30 points. Once a player hits the buzzer on a toss-up, he or she has to answer the question independently, Bossick said. For bonus questions, team members may collaborate to reach an answer.
As with many competitions, Academic Challenge has its powerhouses, and in the Mahoning Valley, that’s South Range, Bossick said.
The team, coached by English teacher Bonnie Molnar, is the twice-defending Mahoning County League champion and is enjoying a 30-game league winning streak. It tied for 50th place overall at 2013 High School National Championship Tournament, placing fifth among small schools, and was the 2010 Small School national champion.
Anyone is invited to join the team, but not everyone stays involved, Molnar said. It takes a lot of work and a time commitment.
Specialty areas are determined based on students’ strengths and interests.
“It only works if you do what you love,” she said.
For South Range senior Brianna Prislipsky, 17, her love of literature won her 2012 All-Ohioan honors. She dabbles in art too.
“I do a lot of reading,” Brianna said.
Even when she’s reading for leisure, she leans toward relevant works, favoring Margaret Atwood’s fiction or T.S. Eliot’s poetry.
In competition, anything can come up, so she reviews old questions to prepare. The classics often come up, so it’s a good idea to be familiar with the likes of “Crime and Punishment” and “100 Years of Solitude.”
Brianna said being on the team has given her an edge in classes. Besides already having read most of the titles assigned in her English classes, she’s picked up information about other subject areas that have helped her in school.
“It’s definitely benefited me in science and history,” she said.