Teams of competing high schoolers sat at two rows of desks facing one another, their thumbs resting anxiously on buzzers as they listened to the moderator’s clue: “This 20th century author loved to use footnotes. In fact, his first best-selling novel featured over 300 of them.”
A student jolted in his seat; a beep sounded. “David Foster Wallace,” he blurted, scoring for his team.
Such was the scene at a recent Scholastic Bowl event hosted at Western Albemarle High School. An official Virginia High School League sport, teams participating in Scholastic Bowl compete against one another by answering questions on a variety of topics ranging from pop culture to history, physics, science, literature, and so on. Each event features three rounds, with a directed round of ten questions, where team members consult with one another and answer as a group, as well as two ‘toss-up rounds’ where, in the vein of Jeopardy, 15 questions are offered by a moderator with competitors buzzing in to answer.
The sport may sound like a more formal version of barroom trivia night—indeed, the boys wear ties, oxford shirts, khakis; the girls dresses and heels. Teams battle through a rigorous regular season schedule vying for slots in regional and state tournaments, with matches rife with tension and, as WAHS varsity coach Eric Strzepek puts it, demanding hard work and killer instinct. “A good player has strong background knowledge on a wide variety of topics both academic and pop cultural in nature,” he said. “They can specialize in certain areas and must be able to answer under pressure faster than their opposition. Good memory, fast processing and the ability to react quickly when called upon are crucial to success in Scholastic Bowl. Really smart kids who freeze under pressure don’t cut it—they need to be buzzer-hungry sharks.”
To prepare for these intense contests, in the offseason students are assigned “You Gotta Know” study-lists gleaned from the National Association of Quiz Bowl Tournaments. “The lists feature information that consistently ends up getting framed in one way or another as questions during games,” said Strzepek, a history teacher at Henley Middle School. He also encourages players to read question sets from old state, regional and conference matches, which are available online. They also scrimmage against other players online.
Having coached for over a decade, Strzepek has many state Scholastic Bowl championships under his belt—including leading an undefeated team with a national ranking of 4th that, in 2014, not only won states, but set a record for the highest team score. After working with so many successful players, Strzepek says he’s developed a knack for recognizing talent. And this year, suffering only one loss during the regular season—and that coming down to a final gut-wrenching question—and beating regional powerhouse and rival Albemarle High School, he’s confident the WAHS varsity squad has what it takes to make a run at the state championship.
“One of my key players is junior starter Caroline Koester,” he said. A captain, Koester has been playing on school teams since the 8th grade. “I brought her up early to compete at nationals because she was simply too good to leave at the middle school level.” Heralded as fiercely competitive and having broad content knowledge, Koester routinely clocks in as the team’s highest scorer, and, with her natural grace under pressure, serves as the squad’s psychic anchor when the heat is on.
Then there are sophomores Jack Emery, Harry Cowen, and Cole Weiss. “Jack specializes in history and has earned the nickname of ‘Big Game Jack,’ because he consistently steps up when the game is on the line,” said Strzepek. “Cole is more of a science and math guy, and has really focused on learning material that fills in gaps in our general knowledge and helps this team succeed. Harry likes pop culture and classical music and is by far our most improved player. His confidence has grown by leaps and bounds and he continues to get better every time he plays.”
After winning the Conference 29 tournament at Fort Defiance on Jan. 23, the team will play in the state championship tournament at the College of William and Mary Feb. 25.
“We’re going to focus on playing smart Scholastic Bowl—making no careless mistakes, being aggressive on the buzzer, and being confident in our individual and team strengths to carry us through,” said Stzepek.