By By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandJune 24, 2012
FAIRFAX, Va. -- Like an athletic team in the clutch, there's something about the fourth quarter that elevates Saint Thomas Academy from a great academic team to a super one.
Whatever "it" is -- adrenaline, fear of losing or easier questions -- it helped the Minnesota program cruise to the Army title in this weekend's Junior ROTC Leadership and Academic Bowl and wallop the Air Force and Navy for the coveted tri-services crown.
"That's when we're ready to go," Walker Lee, a soon-to-be junior, said.
After nearly 45 minutes of questions covering everything from calculus to physics to current events, Saint Thomas managed a slim five-point lead entering the fourth quarter after picking up the rear and trailing the Air Force by as many as 80 points in the final match. Then came the final flurry of questions.
And Saint Thomas's charge. The team gave correct answer after correct answer, building a cushion of 65 at one point. It closed out by racking up 285 points to the Air Force's 240. The Navy finished a distance third with 185 points.
"They did it all," said retired 1st Sgt. Fernando Hernandez, the Saint Thomas coach, said as he was congratulated by other coaches after the victory. "All I did was sit there and bite my nails."
Saint Thomas advanced to the tri-services face-off after a similar match against Lowell (Calif.) High School, a team it already had beaten handily earlier in the day and the same school it bested four years ago for the Army academic bowl championship. In Sunday's Army final at George Mason University, the schools were tied at 140 points entering the pivotal fourth quarter of the contest.
With only eight questions left for the moderator to ask, neither school successfully answered the first two. Then Saint Thomas rattled off four straight correct answers to build a lead it wouldn't relinquish, eventually winning 220-180.
"We knew they were coming for us because they wanted revenge, and they were fierce," Elliot Polsky, of Saint Thomas, said. "We were on our guard."
Saint Thomas ended up undefeated for the entire competition, taking a total of 12 matches.
The Army finale was set up by a series of round-robin contests, where each of the 24 Army programs from around the country competed nine times over Saturday and Sunday. Teams with the best records advanced to the playoffs.
Those at JLAB earned berths after preliminary rounds that began in October with hundreds of schools vying through online quizzes. In both the computer and JLAB contests, students faced a series of SAT/ACT-type questions, with only a matter of seconds to answer each of them.
Many of the matches were hotly contested over the day and a half of qualifying competition this weekend, with leads often going back and forth until the waning moments.
Atholton (Md.) High School, a meager 2-4 entering its match against Heidelberg (Germany) High School, quickly fell behind by 40 points when Julia Wohlers tried to get her teammates focused.
"Come on, guys," she said. "You can do this."
Her team mounted a comeback after dominating a series of questions about Greek mythology. Tied at 150 points at the start of the final period, she tried to swing the match Atholton's way.
"May the best American team win," said Wohlers, whose squad went on to a 230-190 victory.
Vincent (Ala.) High School had won just two matches by midday Sunday. Some of the losses had been by wide margins, a fact that left team captain Raegan Whitfield shaking her head but still smiling.
Representing a school of just 245 students total, Whitfield called the competition nerve-racking. The senior member of her team, having just completed her junior year, she said many topics covered by moderators included subjects younger students hadn't been taught yet.
It didn't help, either, that the competition occurred weeks after Vincent had already begun its summer vacation. For students like Whitfield, other activities offered little time for studying. In fact, she has only spent eight hours at home in the last three weeks, having spent a week each at a drum major camp and Alabama Girls State just before arriving at JLAB.
"It's hard to switch focus," Whitfield said. "We've tried our hardest and our best. Whatever the outcome, I'll be satisfied."
Little time spent studying didn't seem to hurt Saint Thomas. Cadets' focus over the last few days had been on competitive games of Risk and simply relaxing.
"It's how we play, not what we know," Lee said.
He and his teammates, despite their success, admitted they weren't necessarily as confident about some answers they gave as others might have thought.
"We had a lot of good guesses," Lee said. "I'm not going to lie."
The paces of the matches forced students to think quickly and speed through problems to come up with answers. Saint Thomas had several teams keep pace through long stretches of its matches.
The key for the Army and tri-service champions was not letting slim leads or wrong answers discourage them.
"If you don't know it, you don't know it," team member Logan Dufek said. "There are still other questions to answer."