State Academic Decathlon champ Hughson High School now seeks national title

Hughson High School Academic Decathlon team member Maddy Keo talks with a competitor at the California competition in Sacramento, held March 22-24.
Hughson High School Academic Decathlon team member Maddy Keo talks with a competitor at the California competition in Sacramento, held March 22-24.

Hughson High School students walked away from the California Academic Decathlon last month as state champs. Now, the Huskies are going after a national title, without even leaving campus.

This was the third year Hughson — which also won the Stanislaus County Decathlon in 2017 — has competed for the state championship. And it’s the first time any Stanislaus school has won, according to a news release on the Hughson High website.

As the name indicates, the decathlon includes 10 individual-student events: seven objective tests (art, economics, language and literature, math, music, science and social science) and three subjective events (essay, interview and speech). There’s also a team Super Quiz event.

Hughson math teacher and Decathlon coach Paul Michaelis said his team still was savoring its third-place Super Quiz trophy when the state championship was announced.

“There was no screaming because it was completely unexpected,” he said in the school’s news release. “Some of the teams up there are crazy good. For us to win at this level was an amazing accomplishment.”

Academic Decathlon has a different theme each year. Last year’s was Africa, Michaelis said. Next year’s is “In Sickness and in Health: A History of Wellness,” he said. This year, the theme for most categories was “The 1960s: A Transformational Decade.” It’s not a great fit for all tests, such as math, Michaelis said.

But in, say, literature, every participant had to read the play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” written in 1966 by Tom Stoppard. “I think I read it twice over last summer and then a couple of more times this year,” Hughson senior Nathaniel Blazzard, one of the eight students on the team, said in the news release.

And fellow senior Monica Yup wrote a social science essay about three influential people or groups during the civil rights era: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy and the Black Panthers.

Just understanding how Academic Decathlon works requires some smarts. Hughson won in the medium-school category, besting about 20 other schools with enrollments of between 650 and 1,300 students. Hughson’s enrollment is about 680, Michaelis said.

But the school competes in Division 2 of the state event, and divisions have nothing to do with size. Division 1 comprises the top 20 scoring teams in the state, no matter their school size. Division 2 is the next 20, and Hughson was near the bottom, Michaelis said. The rest of the teams, usually 25 to 30, make up Division 3, he said.

Now vying for national titles are five schools from California. The overall grand champion — the school with the highest score at the state event, period — will compete in the USAD Nationals April 25-27 in Bloomington, Minnesota. That’s Granada Hills Charter . Also going to Bloomington is Lemoore Middle College High School, which was the highest-scoring California team not in the same size category as Granada Hills.

Hughson and the large and small school champs are competing online, which means no speeches or interviews, Michaelis said. His team completed the essay portion of the Decathlon on Thursday, he said, and will take the seven objective tests on April 26 against the medium school champions from other states. Those competitions will be conducted on campus with proctors.

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Many dressed to fit the 1960s theme, students from throughout the state compete in the Super Quiz of the California Academic Decathlon, held in Sacramento on March 22-24. California Academic Decathlon

This is the fourth year Michaelis has coached Academic Decathlon. On how he keeps a consistently strong team, he joked, “A solid schedule of beatings, that’s the key.”

But students in his class said having an interest and making a time commitment are the real answers.

“You don’t have to be a brainiac to do this,” said senior Austin Hoach, who admitted his GPA is “fairly low” because he doesn’t do much homework. But in Academic Decathlon, “you just have to put in more work and see how far you go.”

Junior Maddy Keo, who does volunteer work a couple days a week and maintains a 4.5 GPA, said the time commitment really isn’t that much — if you plan and study a bit each day. “I realized how much time I spent on my phone, and just by putting it down, I had so much more time.”

Abigail Holladay, a team alternate, said the class appealed to her because she likes “knowing small things” and because it’s a playful environment.

Blazzard agreed, saying he and his classmates have a blast. “You can learn almost as much as all your other classes combined,” the senior said, “but having way more fun than all your classes combined.”

Besides Blazzard, Yup, Keo and Hoach, the other five Hughson “starters” who competed in Sacramento are juniors Kylee Sullivan and Sadie Padilla and seniors Monica Hollcraft and Murphy Phillips.