Rockville teens outsmart field at competition

Howard academic tourney a fun, feisty battle of facts

January 11, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

After eight hours of matching wits with teams from across the region yesterday, Howard High School's squad earned fourth place and a guaranteed spot in a national scholastic competition this June during an academic showdown yesterday at Hammond High School in Columbia.

A Rockville team from Richard Montgomery High School took the top spot, followed by Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt and Quince Orchard from Gaithersburg.

"I'm wiped out. Now I've got to go home and do my [Advanced Placement] history homework," said Paul Guseman, a 16-year-old junior at Howard.

He and his three teammates - Vincent Wickenheiser, Amelia Liebhold and Eric Moberg, all 17-year-old seniors - outperformed 36 other teams from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington in the fifth annual quiz-show style competition, affectionately named the "Green Eggs and Hammond Academic Tournament" by its founder, Robert Jenkins, who has a fondness for Dr. Seuss.

"He makes learning fun," Jenkins said with a grin. The 28-year-old Hammond High School social studies teacher developed the tournament in 1997 as an outlet for bright teens who participate in their school's It's Academic teams, which compete on television.

"They're not teased here," Jenkins said of the participants. "These are kids who get called by other people `geeks' and `nerds,' and they're not. They just enjoy learning other stuff" about such subjects as Russian composers, Shakespeare's plays, obscure sports champions and the works of Salman Rushdie. Those are just a few of the topics covered by the more than 600 questions thrown at students yesterday.

"It lets me use a lot of the useless information I don't get any other way to use," said Grant Hamming, a17-year-old senior at Hammond who helped organize the tournament. His school wasn't allowed to participate because students had a hand in creating the questions, but they compete regularly elsewhere, with the payoff being esteem.

"What's at stake is the respect of other teams and maintaining an elite status," Hamming said, though sometimes a trophy or two is thrown in. The prizes in yesterday's competition - which sends its top four teams to the National Scholastic Championship in College Park - were books.

The day began at about 9 a.m. when 42 teams showed up ready to flaunt their factoid retention during six rounds of questions and answers. Five hours later, the field was narrowed to 16, which entered the four-round playoffs to knock 12 teams out of the running and choose the top four.

Howard's first playoff competition was against students from Bullis High School from Potomac, who were thrilled just to have made it this far.

"This is the first time we've made it to the playoffs," announced coach Sara Romeyn, who teaches history at the school.

After fielding questions that required answers including Oedipus, Odessa and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Howard had crushed Bullis by 100 points and moved on to the second round against Dulaney High School from Timonium.

Two classrooms down the hall, a team from Centennial High School in Ellicott City had also made it to the second round, but it was up against a formidable squad from Richard Montgomery High School. Members of the Rockville team had earlier walked side by side down Hammond's halls carrying a boombox that blared Richard Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries, perhaps best recognized by some from the Apocalypse Now soundtrack.

"We do it for intimidation," said Tobin Marcus, the 17-year-old senior in charge of the music. And it works. Centennial put up a good fight, but ultimately lost by 30 points.

"They're a good team, it was a rough loss," said Jeff Amoros, a 16-year-old junior at Centennial, who characterized the competition as an eight-hour adrenalin rush.

Howard, however, was victorious and moved on to the third round where members lost to Eleanor Roosevelt.

"It's been a long day," said Howard coach John Gilbert, who is already gearing up for another tournament next month. "We didn't win today, but we will."

At the end of the tournament, most of the teens looked haggard but happy. And Jenkins was still bouncing around as he had been all day, pleased to have new champions in place and to have run a tight ship with the help of nearly 40 volunteers.

"`This is the most fun thing I think I get to do all year," said Linda Toole, whose daughter is a sophomore at Hammond and donated her time. "Part of it is because teens get a bad rap. Here, you get to see the best of them. These are smart kids, they're nice kids. It gives you hope."

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