Mason’s ‘Silent’ Scholastic Success

Are you smarter than a high school student?

Probably not, if it’s a George Mason High School academic bowler. GMHS is the home of champion academic athletes. So far this season their record is an impressive 20-0, though the 20 wins are just a fraction of the team's almost unheard of success.

Here’s a little history straight from coach Jamie Scharff: In the last six years, the Mason High academic team has won the district championship every year. Four times in the past six years, Mason's team has won the regional championship — they finished second the other two years. Three times in the last six years the team captured the state championship, twice finishing as runner up and once in fifth place.

While the winning streak has made the coach very proud of his kids, Scharff's not-so-secret strategy is a simple one — have smart kids and practice.

Students gather twice a week in Scharff’s classroom with nimble thumbs and sharp minds. With buzzers at the ready, the young scholars sit at desks, divided into two teams. Scharff serves as the question man.

Questions range from literature to mathematical computations, from politics to geography. Fortunately, their coach is well seasoned.

“I organized the team and the practices. Once you do it for a while, you get a pretty good idea of what the quiz bowl canon is, that is the body of knowledge that you can guarantee the questions will come from. It’s hard to know at the edges what will be included and what will not be included, but there are some things that you know will be included.”

Scharff has been coaching the scholastic bowl team for eight years and the Virginia High School League only began offering the scholastic bowl title in 1998.

The kids laugh with and at each other as the buzzers sound, lights glow green and red and answers fly. The best part is that these kids are not required to be here, in this den of trivia, everyone wants to play.

“One of the things I like most about coaching the team is that it is like a pure teaching activity,” says Scharff, who also teaches the theory of knowledge, anthropology, history and the relatively new comparative religions class — all part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, an internationally recognized advanced curricula available to highly motivated 11th and 12th grade students. “I say pure in the sense that I don't have to do any coercing like I do in say a required history class. I have kids coming to me saying ‘Please teach me. I want to learn to get better at this.’ That's a lot of fun as a teacher to have kids who are coming because they want to learn things.”

The students that attend and excel at practice are the ones who go on to play on the academic team. That's when Scharff exposes them to the intricacies of the competition.

“In 'It’s Academic' there is no penalty for buzzing in early because there is no bounce back. The other team doesn’t get a shot at it,” Scharff says, noting the differences from the popular televised quiz show that also features high school students. “In scholastic bowl you get a penalty and the whole question is repeated for the other team. You have to play differently. In 'It’s Academic' you have to buzz in as soon as you have a feeling that you know the answer. You have to take chances. In scholastic bowl they need to buzz in when they know it and as soon as they do. It's a slightly different degree of certainty that you need.”

For all of the team's successes and the glowing record, the team has not amassed much exposure. Even within the school, information is only found on a link near the bottom of the athletics page — an accommodation Scharff says they only received after a parent's prodding.

“They have competed so well over the past few years that if they were a sports team there probably would have been a parade down Broad Street in their honor!” says Scharff.

Though absent a parade, they are certainly not lacking in trophies. However, sometimes they are not as prominently displayed as Scharff would like.

“When we win trophies and things they go to the main office for display. After we won our first state championship the trophy was gone from the display case and I saw it sitting on top of a file cabinet in a conference room,” he recalls. “I took it and ever since then after we display them in the main office for a while I display them in my classroom. My window sill has about a twenty-foot long ledge filled with trophies. One of these days they will get us a trophy case. I think our academic team deserves that. But right now my room serves as the trophy case.”

So what revelry do these champions partake in to celebrate their plentiful victories?

“I ended up having them to my house in the summer,” Scharff says. “We had a barbeque and trivia games. That was our celebration.

“We are trivia people. We share the enjoyment of it. They like trying to stump me with trivia questions. We have that in common, so it’s something we bond over, being trivia nerds,” explains Scharff.

The GMHS academic team’s next match is the Bull Run District Tournament at Clarke on Saturday, January 19.