Academic Decathlon winners will be announced Sunday
The unofficial winners of the Super Quiz were Granada Hills Charter High School and Marshall High School in Los Feliz; they beat out more than 60 teams from around California.
On a recent afternoon, Andy Ayala looked like a TV reporter in the middle of his stand-up on a rooftop in Mid-Wilshire, downtown skyscrapers and palm trees just over his shoulder. His feet were planted firmly, his back straight, his brow furrowed with a note of authority.
But there was no camera rolling as the 17-year-old from Los Angeles High School ad-libbed an impromptu speech on what it means to be an American — overcoming adversity and pursuing big dreams. His coach and a few teammates with a sharp critique stood by.
The state Academic Decathlon in Sacramento was a week away. The clock was running out for the L.A. High team to improve enough to come home with a medal or two in the tough competition.
There wasn't a minute to waste on anything but an honest appraisal of Andy's speech.
He started strong and ended strong, but seemed to trail off in the middle, they told him. And there were moments when his elocution could have been clearer. But his argument was solid.
On this day, the team had spread out across what is probably the best study spot in Los Angeles, a roof-top perch — the "penthouse," as it's known around school — with a killer panoramic view.
The team of seniors has given up afternoons and Saturdays and time that could be spent doing just about anything but studying. But this group of eight has become hooked.
"It's really the competition, the adrenaline rush," said Kristian Saravia. "That's what deca is — a mind battle."
"When people think about adrenaline, they think soccer, football — not studying," added Sun Garcia Baltazar. "It gives you a rush. It's such a nerdy rush."
The day before the team left for the state competition, the coach admitted that he hadn't thought they'd make it to the grueling two-day event.
"I don't have a team of superstars," said Richard Cunningham, 76, who is in his sixth season as decathlon coach at L.A. High. "I don't have kids who are guaranteed to be a top scorer. I don't have a single 4.0 kid on this team."
What the team does have, though, is commitment. "They're fearless," he said. "It takes courage to say they are going to do this."
The night before, the team stayed until after 10 p.m. before Cunningham finally drove some of them home. A few stayed on the next day too, poring over dense binders with a year's worth of highlighter marks, even though the trek to Sacramento would be long and start early. To save money, the team took two buses and a train.
If dressed-up "decathletes" are pacing the sidewalk and talking aloud to themselves, it must be Speech Day.
The team from L.A. High formed a circle, standing arms-length apart, for a practice exercise: All eight gave their speeches at the same time.
"If you can give your speech in the middle of that chaos, you should have no problem standing up there," Cunningham said.
Snippets of their speeches rose above the din: Justin De Toro singing "Happy Birthday" at the start of his, Andy discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis and Sharmaine Cerezo wrapping up her speech with "sometimes all a teenager needs is a hug." (May Sathatham ran over to give her one.)
"Slow down!" said John De Toro, a former competitor, who is Justin's older brother and who helps coach the team. "You guys need to be more energetic. I need more enthusiasm!"
They tried again and again, each time with more energy.
In the Super Quiz, in which each team member takes a written test, Los Angeles High's Salome Ok and Joanna Manansala were both one away from getting perfect scores. "So close!" Salome said.
The end of the Super Quiz likely marks the end of a year's worth of hard work.
"Even if I don't like 80% of it, if I could do it again next year, I would," Joanna said, "because this moment right here is priceless."
Their time has run out. Now, they have to go back to clean up the penthouse and help Cunningham recruit a new team.
-- Rick Rojas
Photo: Los Angeles High School students compete in the Super Quiz during the Academic Decathlon State Championship on Saturday. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times