By winning a fourth state championship at the Virginia High School League Group A state tournament last Saturday, the George Mason High Scholastic Bowl team solidified its legacy as one of the state’s premier teams.
Coach James Scharff, a social studies teacher at Mason who has led the team for the past 11 years, accompanied his team of eight juniors and seniors to the College of William and Mary Friday, in preparation for Saturday’s competition.
The team consisted of seniors Katie Buenneke, Mary Ma and Jonathan Ross, and five juniors – Jakob Hand, team captain Asher Morse, Jonathan Ross, Anuraag Sensharma, Crawford Taylor and Ross Wilson.
Successfully answering the questions in Scholastic Bowl tournaments is rewarded with 10 points, with no penalty in the directed questions round, where the opposing team also has a chance to answer the question. In the toss-up round, however, wrong answers lose the team five points.
“We arrived at states pretty confident that the team would do well,” Scharff said. “The only challenge was facing teams that we hadn’t played all year.”
Mason swept up its first challenger of the day, Lebanon High, 250-85, and advanced to the second round to meet Region A champion Nandua High.
A tough first tossup question round, when either team has the opportunity to answer a question, gave Mason a tight lead, 80-60.
“We were down 60-50 by the twelfth question in the first round, which was the first time we were behind that much in any game,” Scharff explained.
However, in the second, directed question round, Mason padded its lead, 190-120, and won the match 275-160, sending Mason on to challenge Honaker High in the third round.
Mason bested Honaker 235-150, and despite a Honaker advantage in the last round of tossup questions, where Honaker led 75-65 for the round, “we basically had it clinched by that point,” said Scharff. Team captain Morse, Hand, Shensharma and Wilson contributed tossup points that kept the damage minimal.
With Mason’s win in the third round, the Mustangs guaranteed themselves a place in the final against one of the three teams remaining. Honaker beat Eastern Montgomery High, which knocked off Nandua in the elimination round, pitting Honaker once again against Mason.
Ross, who experienced his first year on the team in competition, led the final match-up with four tossup questions, with three each from Morse and Sensharma. The Mustangs finished the first round 95-35, topped by a 100-30 win in the direct question portion.
Mason suffered a five-point setback in the first round on the ninth tossup question, with the score at 35-35. “We managed to pull through with six straight correct answers to win the first round,” Scharff said.
“The questions were harder in the state competition,” he noted, “but I let all of my kids compete by changing out the four players in the last game. Each team member contributed points toward the win.”
Mason finished with a 235-135 lead and added a fourth state title to its legacy.
“This win, along with their three runner-up finishes at states, add up to an impressive run,” Coach Scharff said in a statement on the Mason Scholastic Bowl Web site. This is Mason’s seventh appearance at the state championship in the past seven years.
“It was a rebuilding year for us,” Scharff told the News-Press. “We lost some seniors last year, so we had to build this team up, and eventually the core of eight kids developed that has been competing in these competitions.”
“I would say this is perhaps the strongest team we’ve had yet,” he added.
The Mustangs plowed through their competition all this year, reigning on the district and regional level and remaining undefeated, 15-0, in the regular season.
This year’s Bull Run District competition was canceled due to snow. District officials decided to allow top-ranked Mason to proceed as the first seed to the Region B tournament, which was held on Feb. 17.
The Mustangs crushed Clarke County High, 275-135, in the region final to earn their fifth Region B title in six years.
During regular season play, which began in October with practices in September, the team practiced on average twice a week, Scharff said. However, with the busy schedule of weekday tournaments and the upcoming state competition, the team has met weekly to brush up on sample questions Scharff acquired from the group of writers who will craft the questions for the state tournament.
The questions range in topics from ancient history to modern literature, from chemistry to opera, and with practice and a year’s worth of competitions, the buzzers were going off constantly at the team’s last pre-states practice.
Katie Buenneke, who’s been with the team for three years, said she was excited to head to states again. “There’s this unique feeling I get whenever I answer a question correctly. It’s a little high when I get the feeling, ‘I know this! I know the answer!'” she told the News-Press.
Looking ahead, Scharff said the team is considering moving on to national tournaments, which require the team to register and pay a fee. “The [National Academic Quiz Tournament] in Chicago, with its larger field, may be the best option left by the time we find out if enough of our kids would be able to go, and how we’ll pay for it,” he said.
The team went to the Chicago-based national tournament in 2007, winding up in third-place among small schools nationwide. “We also qualified for the tournament for bigger schools, and placed 40th among schools much larger than us,” Scharff said.