Members of the South Medford High School Brain Bowl team practice Friday for today’s championship match against North Medford, Ashland and Rogue River high schools. - Jamie Lusch

Wit takes pressure off Brain Bowl team

It's as if the Brain Bowl team at South Medford High School just doesn't get this fact: The pressure's on.

Instead of showing signs of anxiety during the countdown to today's finals in the 2013 Varsity Brain Bowl Tournament, members are cracking jokes at after-school practices and riffing on answers to imagined questions: Sirhan Sirhan, Sera Sera, Duran Duran "…

But don't misread the levity. This team is in a position to do well.

SMHS's team scored the highest in the February knowledge contest against 250 Southern Oregon students.

Now, however, they are facing serious challenges from other semifinalists, smart students from North Medford, Ashland and Rogue River high schools.

The winner of today's showdown will be invited to national tournaments.

To get there, they will need to listen to seemingly endless esoteric questions, then hit a buzzer and blurt out the correct answer in five seconds while being taped for a broadcast to be shown later that day.

SMHS's response to all this potential stress?

During Tuesday's practice in teacher Paul Hampton's chemistry classroom, Camden Stemple poured the last of the Tootsie Rolls out of a tall lab beaker and worried that he wouldn't be able to beat his record of eating 58 pieces of the chewy candy in one practice session.

The nonchalance is no surprise to school principal Kevin Campbell.

Campbell says he appreciates that academic competitions such as the Brain Bowl and the Academic Challenge, in which SMHS is currently ranked first, offer high school students "a platform to display academic skills." Having said that, he adds, "I'm not really sure the kids worry about the competition as much as they do the information."

That there are public school-sanctioned gatherings of brainiacs at all outside of advance-placement classes is an accomplishment.

Some private, charter and magnet schools offer Brain Bowl classes during the school day and for class credit, but at public high schools, staff time and funding for programs for talented and gifted students have been cut.

Stephen Jensen, director of the regional Varsity Brain Bowl Tournament, relies on volunteer scorekeepers, timekeepers and monitors to put on competitions.

At the high schools, teachers give their time to serve as coaches, and students don't earn extra credit.

If not for grades, then what's the incentive?

"These competitions provide an added measure of rigor or challenge to encourage students to excel in their studies," says Medford School District Superintendent Phil Long, who likens academic competitions to the way iron sharpens iron.

He adds that it's exciting for a student to represent a school or district in regional competitions, and participation looks good on resumes and applications for scholarships and colleges.

For South Medford's team, participating in these types of competitions is a nice break from a rigorous run of advance-placement classes and sports.

And it's another good reason to hang out with friends on a campus that just happens to look like a tech company's glass-and-steel headquarters in Silicon Valley, the kind of place that might be in some of these students' future.

The team gathers in Hampton's tidy classroom every three days after school to be drilled in science, mathematics, history, literature, the arts and sports.

On Tuesday, they plug in buzzers and push chair-desks into a semicircle to face Hampton, who scrolls through Stanford University's archives of quiz packets on his computer.

On the wall above Hampton is a clock where the hour and minute numbers have been replaced by symbols of chemical elements. When it is Ca (atomic number 20) to Li (atomic number 3) — truly you had to be there — Hampton rattles off the first batch of questions, alerting the team that all the answers start with the letter G.

In less than 15 seconds, the team responds rapid-fire that George Gershwin was the American composer of "Porgy and Bess"; "Grapes of Wrath" is the Steinbeck novel about the Joad family; the Galapagos Islands are 650 miles off the Pacific coast and owned by Ecuador; glasnost was initiated by Gorbachev in the late 1980s; Gary is SpongeBob SquarePants' meowing creature; Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th president of the United States; and glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in the U.S.

There is a pause, a nanosecond of an inkling of unknowing when Hampton asks, "Who was the Jamaican-born activist best remembered for his 'back to Africa' movement?" Team member Alex Garner stops chewing on his sucker. Camden Stemple temporarily stops unwrapping a Tootsie Roll, and Zach Schneider looks to the sky for inspiration while continuing to tap his foot. Then Niko Tutland casually says: "Marcus Garvey."

"Where did that come from?" asks Zach, now sitting on the chair back with his shoes on the seat. Niko shrugs.

Missing this day is Brianna Levesque, who is scouting colleges. She's the team's expert on literature and math.

The team — all seniors — has been working with Hampton for three years. He notices that their knowledge expands after they pass advance-placement tests or read a new series of textbooks.

Although it might be assumed they are nerds, two confess to never having seen "Star Wars." Practicing with the core Brain Bowl team are Sam Lichlyter, who looks a bit like a young Bill Gates and who plans to study computer science and physics at Oregon State University. There also is Madi Marcus, who is going to Scripps College in California in the fall, and Adam Case, who is considering aerospace engineering with a focus on astrospace.

Some of the members of the Varsity Brain Bowl also are part of the school's Academic Challenge team, which competes in televised academic quiz shows against 20 other Southern Oregon high-school teams to earn scholarship funds.

Last year, St. Mary's School in Medford won first place, trailed by Ashland High.

Paul R. Huard, one of Ashland High School's team advisers, says academic competitions showcase individual and team efforts.

"Each one of our members is a team player, with skills and knowledge that complement the other, as well as a genuine desire to cooperate with his or her teammates and help each other," says Huard. "They are as smart as a whip, but they check their egos in at the door. Everyone is pulling on the same oar for the same reason."

Toward the end of Tuesday's hourlong practice at South Medford, moments of bravado surfaced.

When no one knew "Chinatown" director Roman Polanski or football player-turned-politician Steve Largent, they concluded those two just weren't that famous.

At the end of today's competition, the SMHS team members will probably do what they typically do, meet at Dairy Queen, where they won't talk about winning or losing or their competition.

"They just like to talk about the questions," says principal Campbell. "That's what this is all about."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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