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Scarborough High School academic decathletes prepare for the national stage

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Scarborough High School academic decathletes prepare for the national stage

SCARBOROUGH — Was anaphylactic shock a partial cause in the death of Russian monk Gregory Rasputin?

The opinionated members of the successful Scarborough High School academic decathlon team could not agree when asked two weeks ago.

But they did know his malevolent hold on the ruling Romanoff family led him to be poisoned, shot and beaten before his body was thrown into a freezing river, which could have caused the shock.

There is little the 10 students have not learned about the years before, during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the deaths of the Romanoff family, and plenty they need to hone before competing in the National Academic Decathlon April 25-27 in Minneapolis.

The team also needs to raise at least $7,000 for airfare, lodging and possibly a meal stipend.

Competing nationally after winning the state competition has become a rite of spring for Scarborough students.

The team has ruled the Maine Academic Decathlon since 1986, winning 24 annual competitions on topics including the French Revolution, American Civil War and imperialism. Monmouth Academy is the only other school to win the overall competition; the most recent of its four titles came in 2004.

(For what it's worth, Russian Tsar Nicholas II was in power for almost 24 years before abdicating in 1917.)

“You don't want to be the team that loses,” sophomore Laura Henny said.

Henny scored highest in the honors division of the state decathlon on March 2. Junior Beatrice Braeuer scored best in the varsity category, and senior and team captain Cynthia Kurtz won the scholastic division.

Monmouth Academy students did win the climactic super quiz round this year, and will also compete  in Minneapolis. Students from Portland High School and Oak Hill High School in Wales will compete online.

Academic decathlon dominance requires mastering knowledge of art, literature, history, science and math. Kurtz said team members have their own strengths, and points can be racked up in quizzes, interviews and an essay.

"It's just not forgetting things, because your scores can easily drop," sophomore Melissa Ertman said.

English teacher Jon York and foreign language teacher Shane Davis lead the team as an extracurricular activity. York said youth also makes the team unique.

“Our team composition is unusual because we have freshmen competing," Davis said.

In national competitions, students face schools treating the academic decathlon as a four-year curriculum for academic credit, culling through hundreds of students to make up teams.

Davis said he pushes for a well-rounded team, even as he grapples with subjects like math.

"Some of these students will tell you they can't get their heads around music theory, but as they progress they often get much better with that subject," he said in an email. "We try to get them through all seven objective subjects by mid-November. The focus changes in December and January as we add speech and interview to the mix. Honestly, success breeds success."

The team was not overly fond of reading Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," and not very impressed by how Russia has been governed over the centuries.

“I've learned about the minimal amount of really good rulers they have had,” junior Spencer Williams said.

The national decathlon can resemble an enormous game show, where a stage full of students answer questions electronically and undergo seven-minute interviews testing their knowledge. There is free time set aside for sightseeing and social gathering, but Kurtz and senior Julia Labanowski said there is plenty of pressure.

"It can be like rubbing your head against a cheese grater, Kurtz said.

Davis did not sugarcoat the demands of excellence.

"There is no easy way around the preparation. You have to read as much of the material as you can," he said. "The students quickly learn that they are expected to perform in a high-pressure situation using the knowledge they've gained."

The tradition remains strong and interest in the team high because it also opens new academic venues, Ertman said.

“It was fun to learn about (Russian history)," she said, "because you can't take a course in (it) here."

Last year's 2012 state champions were led by a record-setting scorer, Susan Rundell, who was also her class valedictorian. Rundell is now at Yale University.

Henny said the state competition was no sure win this year.

“We really do try to keep it up, this year it was not certain we'd win,” she said.

Davis said replacing team veterans like Rundell is made easier by success.

"I find that we can usually recruit 15-20 students. The kids who are really sold on the program start a countdown to the new material in early May and often that is contagious in and of itself," he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.