When the National Academic League season began, some of the ninth-graders on Wasatch Middle School’s team were unsure whether they could live up to the expectations set by their predecessors.
The team won the 2011 national championship, but lost several members who moved on to high school.
Wasatch Middle School won its second consecutive National Academic League national championship on April 13. The team of 35 students went undefeated and has won 38 of its past 40 matches. The students answer questions on subjects in five areas – math, science, history, language arts and geography.
No pressure, right?
"Last year we had some really good ninth-graders," Zach Vayo said. "I was really worried we wouldn’t be able to live up to their legacy."
Vayo and his teammates lived up to those expectations, and in April they capped an undefeated season by bouncing previously unbeaten Hanes Middle School of North Carolina 78-49 in the championship match.
It was the 26th consecutive victory for Wasatch, which has won 38 of its past 40 matches over the past three years. Wasatch beat Magna’s Brockbank Middle School in the semifinals.
"I think it has to do with preparation," Wasatch coach and social-studies teacher Tom Allen said. "These kids study like crazy and really put in the work. The reason why we’ve won so much is we just work harder."
The victory capped a perfect season that began in January. But before that, students endured almost three months of studying and testing in math, science, geography, history and language arts simply to make the team.
The 35-member squad consists of a 15-member "creative" team and a 20-member "buzzer" team. The latter group answers questions in different formats, ranging from long-form, collaborative offerings to rapid-fire, buzzer-beating responses.
Vayo, captain of the buzzer team, said this year’s championship means more to him because of his increased role.
"I kind of liked having a little of responsibility and leadership for the well-being of the team," said Vayo, a ninth-grade geography whiz.
The creative or "presentation" team has 30 minutes to put together an argument by using charts and posters and memorizing speeches, all while being timed.
In the title match, captain Artemis Sefandonakis and her creative team spoke about fracking, the process of releasing gas and petroleum by widening fractures in underground rock layers. The team finished its presentation with 15 seconds to spare.
"It was a really great feeling to win and be the best," said Sefandonakis, a ninth-grader.
Allen said the team’s backbone has been its performance in the match’s final quarter – the lightning round, in which five students on each side buzz in to answer toss-up questions.
It’s a format that seems custom made for buzzer team co-captain Ian Shen, who retains information almost as fast as he can read it. Shen memorized the periodic table of elements and can name two of the first three emperors of the Byzantine Empire.
"Last year’s [championship] was harder, it was more of a challenge. But I think this one means more," said Shen, a ninth-grader. "It means we have gone up against all the other teams and have repeatedly shown we are well-trained for it. We are the best."
Allen said plans to celebrate this year’s championship haven’t yet been finalized. One thing is certain: Next year’s team has quite a tradition to uphold.
"It’s a strong program," Allen said. "As long as we keep the kids excited and motivated, I think we will continue to do well.
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