Academic Team Continues Undefeated Season

George Mason High School’s Scholastic Bowl team made major gains this week toward completing its second annual undefeated season, and is poised to pursue a second straight state championship. It defeated three other high school teams Monday by a combined margin of 1010-290.

George Mason High School’s Scholastic Bowl team made major gains this week toward completing its second annual undefeated season, and is poised to pursue a second straight state championship. It defeated three other high school teams Monday by a combined margin of 1010-290.

Use of the term ‘Planck time’ almost immediately elicited the answer “Big Bang theory” from Anuraag Sensharma. Mention of a brief quotation from a poem led Asher Morse to the answer “William Cullen Bryant,” the poet’s name. From there, the George Mason team pushed forth with answer after answer – “Miranda v. Arizona,” “chlorophyll,” and “Constantinople” – until the first round of the meet the team hosted Monday came to an end.

Their competitors, the Rappahannock County High School team, scored 30 points in the round. The home team scored 120. After advancing the score to 230 – 70 in the second round, George Mason won, 295 – 130. The team then defeated its other guests, teams from Madison County High School and Strasburg High School, 335 – 110 and 380 – 50.

For the George Mason team, it was another victory in what has thus far been an undefeated season. Monday’s wins came after an impressive showing at the University of Maryland’s “Dr. Yakub” (Demonstrate Readily Your Academic Knowledge Using Buzzers) Tournament held Saturday, where the team competed against schools from states across the region, and among them bested even the mighty Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

“This is the best team I’ve ever coached,” said the team’s advisor, Social Studies teacher Jamie Scharff. “We showed that Saturday. We played some of the best in the country and came in second.”

According to Morse, their performance made last Saturday “a pretty eventful day. We have never beaten T.J. before. It shows how far we’ve come.”

He added that another match-up, against Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., was a big win for the team.

“Beating Richard Montgomery was the more impressive win,” Morse said. “They came in first, and we were their only loss of the day.”

Scharff, who has 22 years of experience as an academic team coach, has spent all of his 12 years at George Mason advising the group.

The team has won state championships four times in the past decade – 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2010. Three times, they placed second – 2004, 2006 and 2009.

While the academic team has seven senior members – Morse, Sensharma, Crawford Taylor, Ross Wilson, Jakob Hand, Matt Baker, and Gemma Seidita – only four members can play at a time during competition. Players can be substituted between a match’s three rounds of play. The first round of play is a toss-up round, where both teams are posed questions and the team member first to ring in with the correct answer gets the points for the question. In the second round, each team is posed a question in alternating order. The final round is a second toss-up round.

The questions posed to students are pyramid questions, meaning that the clues provided first give little information, but the answer becomes more obvious as additional clues are provided.

Scharff said that his team strives to answer questions on the first clue, and that this is a special source of pride in the game.

“If you answer on the first clue, it’s because you know [the field] in depth,” Scharff said.

Scharff attributes the success of his team to a number of factors.

“One of the reasons why this team is so good is because we have students who specialize,” he said, referring to the various subjects where team members excel.

Scharff also said having seniors on the team helps give them a competitive edge.

“It is a big advantage to have seniors on the team,” Scharff said. “They have been hearing these questions since ninth grade.” There are, however, disadvantages to having such a well-developed team. Scharff said that it is difficult to bring younger members into the group because they are often intimidated by what the seniors know and how well they perform.

“Especially this year because this team has gotten so good, it’s difficult to get kids behind them,” Scharff said. “It’s hard to convince them that they can become that good, but they can, like these kids.”

And his team got that good, in part, by meeting regularly for practice.

“When we meet for practice, sometimes we simulate games with the buzzer system,” Scharff said. “Other times, I just throw out questions. I’ve accumulated tons of question sets.” Scharff has large stacks of questions that he can draw from.

When it comes to preparing his team, the advisor likes to give them a challenge.

“When I have a team this good, I like to use college-level questions.”

It was the welcoming environment of those practice sessions that kept now-captain Morse coming back for more. Morse said his teammate, Sensharma, encouraged him to join the group during his ninth-grade year.

“I enjoyed it,” Morse said. “I didn’t know that much, but it was a nice atmosphere.”

From there, Morse was given a list of terms to look over to begin digging into the fields questions would be drawn from, “forming associations” between terms and expanding his knowledge. It helps that Morse is a “voracious reader,” according to Scharff.

Though the team might be the winningest of the George Mason franchise, even home meets don’t draw a large crowd.

“Because quiz bowl is not the best spectator sport, it’s not like we draw spectators other than family and friends,” Scharff said. “It’s not like a football team or a basketball team in terms of the greater public [involvement].”

“It’s really fun to watch because the kids have such a good time playing,” said Ericka Schlager, mother to Jakob Hand and one of George Mason parents to attend Monday’s meet. “Mr. Scharff has really inspired them.”

Along with the joy of success in competition, the team is also just excited to be learning new and interesting information.

“They like winning, but they get a kick out of learning stuff,” Scharff said.

The team will return to play after winter break for two matches on Jan. 10. They will then compete Jan. 22 at the district tournament with the hopes of returning to the state tournament to bring home another title.

The team’s competition on WRC-TV’s “It’s Academic” show, taped last month, will be aired on Christmas morning, Dec. 25, at 11 a.m.