Members of the Scarborough High School Academic Decathalon may have earned an invitation to the national tournament in Hawaii, but rather than dreaming of leis and luaus, the students have been stuffing their brains with facts about the topic of this year’s tournament: China and its influence on the world.

The national finals of the United States Academic Decathlon Association, sponsored by the California-based nonprofit, are April 25-28 in Honululu.

In March, the Scarborough team won the state championship, where, coach Shane Davis said, members particularly focused on giving their best. Last year, he said, the team took a two-week break from studying after the state tournament before returning cramming for nationals. “They took no time off this year,” he said.

Throughout the school year, the team has met three times every week – twice after school in Davis’ classroom and on Sunday at one of the student’s homes. According to coach Jon York, the seven hours of team practice represents merely a fraction of the work that they do.

“It really has to come from them,” he said. Davis called it “a unique activity to be involved in because of the self-motivation.”

After receiving information packets last May for the seven subjects that they would be tested on – math, economics, language and literature, art, music, science and social science – the students spent their summers studying the material. But don’t mistake them for stereotypical bookworms. In fact, the team is required to represent a range of grade point averages.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for people who love to learn for learning’s sake, for whom school in and of itself doesn’t hold that much allure,” said Bethany Whittemore, whose son, Alex, is on the team.

That intellectual curiosity is evident in practices, where the format is less like a study session than it is a discussion, and often a funny one.

“Flashcards are like prompts,” said sophomore Caterina MacLean, who remembers material best when it is part of an interesting conversation. “We learn by osmosis,” she said.

At a particular Thursday evening practice that officially started at 5:30, students lounged on top of the desks of Davis’ Latin classroom for a half an hour or more, talking about school and devouring donuts before senior Jon Russell started making notes on the white board and quizzing his teammates on Chinese music.

According to York, Russell “has taken the reins after states. He’s the one motivating the team,” he said. But after a while, Russell had to leave for an English class that he takes at the University of Southern Maine, and York began projecting flashcards on a screen at the front of the room.

Barely a question could go by without a quip from MacLean, a digression from senior Matt Sirocki or a marker being thrown across the room at Whittemore by senior Kenton Whipple.

“It’s usually not this organized,” MacLean said, without a hint of sarcasm.

Despite the distractions during practice, there is no doubt that the students have retained a lot of information over their months of study and will continue to learn more up to the last minute before the tournament begins.

Davis said that even the sun and sand won’t stand in the way of the team’s determination. “It’ll be interesting,” Davis said about arriving in Hawaii, “the first full day will be a Wednesday and the kids will sequester themselves in a room and study.”

Though the team’s study practices may not be conventional, they certainly work for the Scarborough students. In the 21 years of the team’s existence, the team has one the state tournament 18 times. Though the win itself has become almost expected of them, this year their third-place ranking in their division at the national tournament has given them more inspiration to give everything they have.

“If we work really hard, we have a really good chance of getting into the top 3,” York said, and that has only happened twice before. The last time was in 2002, when Whittemore’s brother, Nathaniel, was a senior on the team.

“There’s nothing saying we can’t do it,” Whittemore said.

To help the Scarborough High School Academic Decathalon team pay for its April 25-28 trip to Hawaii for the national finals, contact Bethany Whittemore at 883-1609, or Nancy Russell at 883-6544.

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