Valley decathlon teams study during holiday break

The Fresno BeeDecember 29, 2013 

Armed with colored highlighters, Peter Yang, Edison High junior, left, digs into studying social science, as does Thomas Moore, Edison senior, right, with coach Gary Mrkaich, standing, as they prepare for the annual county academic decathlon tournament, at Mrkaich's house, Thursday.


Aside from the clicking of highlighter pens, the warm, high-ceilinged kitchen is silent: a half-dozen teens scattered throughout the room are hunched over, reading about World War I while their Academic Decathlon coach's dog, Oreo, looks on like a sentinel.

Sodas and snacks, fuel for later, sit on the counter. Also covering Edison High School coach Gary Mrkaich's kitchen on Friday morning: 3-inch-wide binders chock-full of facts about WWI, this year's Academic Decathlon topic. Edison High's team isn't alone; kids across the central San Joaquin Valley are studying up during break to prepare for county decathlon tournaments in February.

Edison senior Thomas Moore types notes on his laptop from a reading packet that's 100 pages thick. Each page is spattered with loopy handwriting and blue and yellow highlighter — notes to himself for later about literary criticism during the 1910s.

The athletic build of the 17-year-old with dusty brown short hair betrays what Moore does in the off-season: He's a water polo player for half the year, an activity that cuts into the first few months of the Academic Decathlon studying season.

But Moore isn't too worried about making up lost time. That's what winter break is for.

"Over winter break, it just starts to drag a little bit. But this (studying) really keeps me motivated," he said.

Edison High's seven-person team is studying from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. almost every day during their three-week holiday vacation that ends in January. The team meets up at Coach Mrkaich's home in Clovis, where wife Cheryl, McLane High's decathlon coach, also hosts study-sessions with a small troop of her own whiz kids.

Instead of whiling away their weeks of freedom, the teens from both schools are painstakingly memorizing details about WWI history and culture.

Academic Decathlon was developed in Orange County in the late '60s as a way to get brainy youngsters with a range of abilities excited about learning. Each school's team is made up of no more than nine members — three kids with a high grade-point average, three in the middle of the pack and three who get lower marks.

Like its name implies — and similar to an athletic decathlon — the academic contest includes 10 categories such as art, math, economics and social science.

The competitors are asked to answer trivia, perform speeches, do interviews and prepare for the Super Quiz, the "Jeopardy"-like championship event that draws cheering crowds at the annual county competitions in February.

Mrkaich, who has coached Edison's team for the last 13 years, said the three-week hiatus from school is crunch time before the big event. The team spent 900 hours studying during last year's season — almost 150 of which happened over break.

"This is our big leap, if you will," he said. "It's kind of like crawl, walk, run," he added, explaining the team's escalating study regimen as the weeks wind down to the county competition.

Moira Tan, a petite 16-year-old junior at Edison, said she prefers the long study sessions to her regular school work. There's a strong sense of camaraderie on the team, and she said, "Here in decathlon, I find people who are just like me."

"I have a lot of friends, but they always pick on me for spouting out some nerdy fact," she said. "But in decathlon, it's totally welcomed and encouraged to do that kind of stuff."

When asked what else she's doing over break, she said, "This is it."

Other Fresno County quiz teams are also hard at work.

University High's team, Edison's biggest local rival in recent years, spends about 60 hours reading and taking practice quizzes over break. Coach Sean Canfield called the amount of reading "immense," which is one reason his students carve out so much time during break to study.

"There's no getting around it, it's just hard work," he said. "The only way I can give any kind of comprehension is, imagine it's right before your finals in college, then drag that over weeks and months."

The northeast Fresno charter school has won three out of the last four county tournaments, beating out Edison after that school was the champ for at least a dozen years in a row. It's a friendly rivalry, Canfield said.

"Obviously we want to defeat each other, there's no doubt about that, but we have a lot of respect for each other," he said.


Academic Decathlon

When: Feb. 1 for testing, Super Quiz and awards

Where: Fresno County at Central East High School; Tulare County at Mission Oak High, Tulare; Kings County, Sierra Pacific High, Hanford; Madera County, Madera South High


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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