Think Positive: WAHS’s Scholastic Bowl Brain Trust

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Members of the WAHS Scholastic Bowl team prepare to compete at regionals. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Questioner: “This theorem was first stated in modern terms by Jamshid al-Kashi. There are three equivalent versions of this law depending on the labeling of sides and angles. This law is named for a function that is multiplied by 2ab …” BUZZ . . . “Cosine.” “That is correct.”

The Western Albemarle High School Scholastic Bowl team steamrolled the regular season this year, racking up a 19-0 record and a ton of points in district competition. The Gazette caught up with five of its members at the February 8 regional championship event in Fort Defiance and queried them about what makes the team so good. While WAHS Scholastic Bowl teams have been consistently high-ranking under the leadership of coach Eric Strzepek over the last fifteen years, this year’s group distinguishes itself by being both witty and nutty at the same time.

“There are a lot of conjunctive spheres that make us a good team,” said senior Charlie Sewell, “but it’s basically because we like each other. A lot of teams we compete against are very cold and austere—they might be smart, but they don’t even look at each other.” The WAHS team is a balanced mix of talents and specialties: senior Sydney Dell knows math and composers; junior Karen Raphael, science and history; senior Charlie Sewell, history, geography, and occasionally literature; junior Mackenzie Whitley, mythology and science; and Ben Lenox is the resident sports expert.

They are a serious-minded but light-hearted bunch with amusing rituals such as a pre-game huddle/hoot and the distribution of Altoids before each round, even dressing in costumes or furry body suits for competition. While other teams slump in silence with furrowed brows, WAHS members wriggle, gesture, and fist-bump enthusiastically. Some of it is meant to hype themselves up, and some to mess with their competitors.

The WAHS Scholastic Bowl team receives advice (and Altoids) from Coach Strzepek before a match. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“We don’t really tilt a lot because we support each other,” said Sewell. Tilt—to lose one’s footing, go sideways, crumble. “A lot of teams are prone to tilting, where if they mess up once and it gets in their heads, then it tends to spiral downward. It’s especially bad if they have one ringer, one person who knows more than the others but who might fail on certain issues, and then their whole team tilts.” For WAHS, knowing which teams are tilt-able is part of the game plan.

“We’re big on strategy,” said Raphael. “For instance, we like to wait as long as possible [while the moderator recites the question] before buzzing in. If the other team gets it wrong, we wait until the end of the question to make sure we get it, but also to kind of ice them out and make them think about what they did wrong.” (Unlike Jeopardy! a team receives a score deduction only if they “interrupt” the question and are wrong.) “Also, our sunglasses throw teams off,” said Raphael.

Questioner: “When this quantity for a mixture is greater than it is in the mixture’s components, the mixture is a negative azeotrope. The product of the Ebullioscopic constant, v’ant hoff factor, and molality gives a colligative property known as the elevation …” BUZZ … “Boiling.” “That is correct.”

A Scholastic Bowl team competes with four players. A match consists of two rounds of toss-up questions, which either team can buzz in on, and a set of direct questions posed to each team. The topics cover most academic subjects as well as current events, politics, and popular culture, the last three falling into a non-category the students call “trash” questions. “Sometimes you feel extremely stupid,” said Dell, “like when there are weird descriptions or facts or it’s just something you’ve never heard of. Sometimes it’s just luck that you happen to know it.”

The team’s balance of knowledge across areas takes the pressure off individual players, so they tend not to ‘steal’ questions in another’s specialty, and they don’t get mad. At the regional competition, WAHS’s first-round matchup was with local nemesis Charlottesville High School, and the Warriors were down big after the first set of questions. Coach Strzepek, who sat at a table behind the team, silently writhed as his team missed (what he saw as) get-able answers, alternately holding his head and extending his arms out wide. 

The team, however, stayed cool. Showing little frustration and no sign of irritation with each other, they held on during the second set of questions, then began a furious, surgical comeback during the last set. Scoring correct answers to the last five questions in a row, they clawed back to a tie with CHS by the end of regulation, which meant there would be a tiebreak question.

Questioner: “This author included malevolent statements such as ‘A dead body revenges not injuries,’ in a list of the Proverbs of Hell which appears in his self-illustrated book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. He described a fire that was ‘daring to seize from distant deeps or skies’ in a poem from his collection, Songs …” BUZZ … “Blake.” “That is correct.” 

Sewell’s “occasional literature” skills sealed the WAHS victory, and Coach Strzepek was elated, thrilled with his team’s spirit. “This team is the most cohesive, well-balanced team I have ever coached,” he said. “They are completely supportive of each other. Each has key strengths and when one person is having an off day, someone else steps up and pulls us through.” Strzepek, who teaches social studies at Henley Middle School, says Scholastic Bowl is a “mind sport.” “This sport gives smart kids the opportunity to enjoy healthy competition just like any other VHSL sport. We take it seriously and still have a great time.”

The players admire their coach just as much. “He cares, and he’s a professional,” said Lenox. “He knows the things he needs to know about the rules and special situations and what to do.” In addition to holding once or twice a week practices at WAHS, Strzepek advises the team between rounds to either “wait until you know it” or “swing for the fences” based on what he’s observing.

“He really cares about us,” said Dell. “He always asks how we’re doing, makes sure our grades are up. He understands if we have to miss practice because we’re slammed with school.”

As fate would have it, the team’s luck didn’t quite hold at regionals. “Going into the afternoon there was a three-way tie, a very rare occurrence in a round robin tournament,” said Strzepek. “We played CHS [again, in the tiebreaker] and they beat us, first time all year. A disappointing outcome after a great regular season.” But to Strzepek, it’s all part of the game he loves. “It has been my privilege to coach such brilliant and excellent humans.”  

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