KINGMAN - For the past 23 years, high schools across northern Arizona learned to begrudgingly accept one universal fact of life: you don't send a team to the Region I Academic Decathlon competition and expect to take first place. It just didn't happen.
Until now, that is. Earlier this month, Kingman Academy High School's team unseated St. Johns High School as the Region I champs, smashing a first place record the tiny Apache County town had kept unbroken since 1987.
"This is the greatest showing we've ever done," said the KAHS decathlon team's coach, Michael Suchowierski, who also teaches advanced placement history and government. "We've had this program for seven years, and we always seemed to improve every year. This is just the culmination of that."
Founded in California in 1968, the Academic Decathlon is a 10-event, team-based competition held between high schools spanning 43 states. The decathlon is broken into seven multiple-choice tests covering a range of subjects such as math, science, language arts and literature. It also requires students to give prepared and impromptu speeches, interviews and essays, with all material based around a common theme, such as the United Nations, the Civil War, or in this year's case, the French Revolution.
Students are provided the required material at the beginning of the year, and must study it exhaustively in order to do well in the actual competition. Each question of each test is worth 20 points, with speeches, interviews and essays worth an additional 1,000 points each.
"It's high level, it's recall, it's everything," Suchowierski said. "It's the most rewarding but challenging academic endeavor I've ever heard of, since it requires the students to be so well-rounded and to push themselves harder."
What makes the decathlon unique is that it's not just for honor students. In fact, each participating school is required to send students from all three achievement categories: Honors, students with a 3.75 to 4.0 grade point average; Scholastic, whose GPA ranges from 3.0 to 3.74; and Varsity, whose GPA falls below 3.0.
"You can't just get nine valedictorians and throw them up there," Suchowierski said. "Some of them choose, others get recruited. But for some kids, you can see past the assignments they turn in and see their true intelligence and potential."
Prior to this year's surprising win over St. Johns, KAHS's teams had been improving, reaching second place regionally last year and taking the state championship for 3A, or middle-sized schools. Suchowierski said their ultimate goal is to blow through this year's state competition and go straight to the nationals, where they hope to win first place for mid-sized schools.
"We're the leading 3A team to go into state," he said. "This team believes in themselves, and I think they can do great things."
Suchowierski was himself a team member for KAHS in 1996, when his team, like so many others, fell to the scholastic might of St. Johns.
"I want to say we got third that year," he said. "Everyone in our region has always dreamed of the day we'd beat St. Johns. I always tried to figure out how they did it."
But this year, they didn't have to try. In addition to beating St. Johns by nearly 2,500 points, KAHS also boasted a number of other accomplishments at this year's regionals in Pine Top. Senior Hannah McBride scored the most points overall of anyone at the competition, which included students from 17 schools across Northern Arizona. McBride also took the top-scoring spot among students in the Honors category, while Trenton Pinson scored the most individual points in the Varsity category.
KAHS's team also placed first in the Super Quiz and Super Quiz Relay, which require each category of students to answer a series of questions in rapid-fire format. Each of KAHS's nine teams members also took individual honors in each of the subject areas, with the sole exception of the speech competition. In addition to McBride and Pinson, the team members are: Nirmal Vijayavel, Jael Harper, Jenna Lewis, Azba Khan, Jonnie Blake, Ben Brantley and Eddie Knudtson.
Members of KAHS's team said that, while beating St. Johns had always been a dream, seeing it become a reality has been hard to believe.
"I'm still kind of in shock," Pinson said. "Out of nowhere, the thought will just hit me: 'We beat St. Johns!'"