Could this year be the Baker’s Dozen or the Lucky 13 of consecutive championships for the Oakdale High School Academic Decathlon team?
That question burns in the minds of the OHS team as well as many other teams who’ve been thwarted by Oakdale’s domination of the Stanislaus County Academic Decathlon for more than a decade. The answer will be revealed at the 33rd annual competition taking place this weekend at Gregori High School in Modesto.
The “Aca Dec” is considered the biggest academic event for local high schools and is put on by the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE). It is a two-day series of tests, speeches and interviews, featuring this year’s theme, “Russia” with a focus on the space race and the Russian revolution.
Led by teacher Linda Dodge, in her second year as the team’s coach, OHS team members have spent many hours studying, taking tests, and focusing on doing their best, rather than on the pressures of winning. However, the thought of not bringing home the championship trophy does sit in the back of the minds of the team and the coach.
OHS competing team member Madison Lane said that sometimes she gets concerned that she and her teammates may get too confident but they need to not get complacent. She said that they have a healthy sense of competition amongst each other and that helps keep them sharp and motivated toward performing their best.
“Coming from a program that is historically successful, we try to keep up with the study habits,” she said.
Dodge agreed that complacency is her main fear because nothing is guaranteed. She said she never wants her team to think they have it “in the bag.”
“You certainly don’t want to be the team that finally lost,” added competing team member Thomas Dempsey.
Dodge said she feels that same way as the coach, too. She said she feels more pressure this year than last year when she was new at the helm.
Participating schools each send a nine-member competing team and may also send as many alternate participants as they choose. OHS is sending a contingent of 34 students to compete.
The nine students on the OHS competing team represent three different levels based on grade point averages. Honors members have 3.75-4.00 GPA; Scholastic members have a 3.00-3.74 GPA; and Varsity members have a 0.00-2.99 GPA.
OHS Honors members are Madison Lane, Dylan Hawksworth Lutzow, and Alexander Keyser. Scholastic members are Jarrod Colvin, Elizabeth Erwin, and Adam Jensen. Varsity members are Thomas Dempsey, Jared Medeiros, and Fernando Cruz.
Lane, Colvin, and Dempsey are all seniors in their fourth year of involvement with Academic Decathlon, and each is in their second year as members of the competing team. Now that the three are team veterans, as leaders they realize they have big shoes to fill – those of OHS Aca Dec champion alumni.
Aside from the overall goal of winning the championship trophy, the team members have individual goals as well. For Lane, taking the top spot in Honors division points has been her goal since her freshman year. Colvin said that being top in his division is a goal and also doing better than he did last year. Dempsey added that doing better than last year is a realistic goal now that they all have the experience.
According to SCOE Student Events Coordinator Barbara Little, the goal of the decathlon is to stimulate intellectual growth and scholastic success.
“The competition is open to all students, not just the top-achievers,” she said. “Our objective is to recognize student achievement and to emphasize the positive dimensions of education.”
In other words, the Academic Decathlon isn’t just made up of straight-A students. Coach Dodge said that finding students at the Varsity level, who have a 2.99 or less GPA, who are interested in becoming involved with the Aca Dec team is always a challenge. While perhaps not as polished when it comes to grades, those diamonds in the rough are a valuable component of the team.
“We look for bright kids who were maybe unmotivated in the first couple of years of high school,” Dodge said of one strategy in finding them.
“Last year, after Aca Dec was over, I found myself entering a ‘normal’ school routine,” reported Varsity member Dempsey.
He added that because of his participation in Academic Decathlon, he has improved study habits and potential, which helps him to perform better academically.
Colvin added that previous Aca Dec team members have also shared how being in Aca Dec has helped them in college because of the study habits they learned.
The three competing team members all agreed that Aca Dec has helped them with preparing for tests, with their speed at taking tests, and has helped them develop better overall test taking skills.
The students stated that many of them were recruited to the team by friends who were Aca Dec competitors in previous years, and that they also engage in recruiting the future generation of Aca Dec team members.
Dempsey said he was encouraged to get into Academic Decathlon by his sister, who had been in the program.
“I was recruited by a friend...who bugged me until I went to Aca Dec, sat in a couple classes and found I liked it there, found my niche in high school,” Colvin recalled.
“A lot of the AP (Advanced Placement) teachers really try to make sure people who might be interested know about the program,” Lane added. “That’s how I got recruited.”
The team members invest a lot of time in their studies for the competition. They all take a seventh period class that deals with Aca Dec topics, they also meet outside of class in groups, and study on their own as well. Many are also involved in other activities such as clubs and some are also involved in sports.
“We want our kids to be well-rounded…and be involved in other things,” Dodge said, noting that in some schools, Aca Dec students are discouraged from having other activities.
“It’s a lot of work but it’s all worth it in the end,” Colvin said. “…By the time I get to the contest, I’ve already put in the work. I’m nervous the night before but the day of, I calm down.”
Dempsey agreed that this close to the contest, they can’t worry or change anything now.
“You don’t get the full feel of what Aca Dec is about until you compete for the first time… There’s a lot of energy from OHS at the competition,” Lane added.
OHS alternate team members are: Martin Arellano, Miguel Barajas, Emma Boggs, Ashley Caron, Austin Clayton, Aleksaandra Courtney, Joy Deos, Bryce Dickman, Billy Fretz, Eva Galindo, Nicholas Geis, Julio Gonzalez, RaeAnna Gottlieb, Katherine Homer, Haakon Magnussen, Nicholas McElmurry, Rachelle Pabalan, Nikita Sinkevich, Sarah Sorenson, Connie Speer, Amber Ulrich, Trevor White, Michael Winders, Danny Wong, and Valeria Zemlyanskaya.
A total of 12 high schools are competing in this year’s contest. The public is invited to attend the Aca Dec culminating event, the Super Quiz and Awards Presentation, on Saturday, Feb. 2 from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Gregori High School Gym, 5518 Stoddard Road, Modesto. Admission is free.
This year’s winner will represent Stanislaus County at the California Academic Decathlon State Finals, March 14-17 in Sacramento.