OC’s Academic Decathlon champions set high goals for state tournament

Mike Nakaue, center, has coached Woodbridge High School’s Academic Decathlon team for the past 22 years.

Each member of this year’s Woodbridge High Academic Decathlon team believes there’s plenty of room for improvement, even after winning the Orange County championship last month.

“We may have won, but I know we can do better,” said team captain Hanna Hui.

Students studies at her desk
Woodbridge High junior Hanna Hui studies for the upcoming California Academic Decathlon championship.

That sentiment is what has pushed the team all year. It’s what drives them during hours-long study sessions after school, and what inspires them to continue their preparation on weekends, pouring over the hundreds of pages of material for those handful of facts that could trip them up during competitions.

The Woodbridge High Academic Decathlon team, known as “The Magnificent Seven,” will compete this weekend in the California Academic Decathlon in Sacramento. In fact, Woodbridge is one of five qualifying squads from Orange County. But the team is going to the state capital as the county champion for the second straight year.

“It’s definitely going to be a tough field to beat,” Hui, a junior, said. “I don’t know if we’ll win, but we each have a goal to beat our own best scores.”

In the practice sessions leading up to the state championship, the seven-member team has ratcheted up its study drills. At a recent session last week, students spent a couple hours quizzing one another about all topics related to this year’s Decathlon theme, “Africa.”

They carefully sifted through thick binders filled with facts and figures relating to African culture, history and geography. The binders’ worn pages were covered in rainbows of Post-it notes and highlighter marks to help students pinpoint subjects they needed extra work in, and those areas in which they felt more confident.

Junior Sachin Pathuri spent extra time on African music. Meanwhile Matt Ho, another junior, read up on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Woodbridge High junior John Paul Faza checks his answers on a study guide as he prepares for the upcoming California Academic Decathlon.

Daniel Kang, the only senior on the team, and one of two students who were on the team last year, said this year’s theme is a lot tougher compared to the World War II theme from last year.

“There’s just a lot more out there about history from World War II,” he said. “For Africa, it’s a subject that’s just more difficult to research.”

The Academic Decathlon originated in Orange County, the brainchild of former County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Peterson. The idea came to Peterson while he was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

Teams representing 69 high schools from across the state will face off in the two-day tournament starting Saturday. The U.S. Academic Decathlon championships will follow April 19 through April 21 in Frisco, Texas.

Besides Woodbridge High, Westminster High, Trabuco Hills High, Valencia High in Placentia and University High in Irvine will also represent Orange County.

The state competition is the toughest compared to any other state. The Golden State winner almost always wins the national championship. Generally, only the state champion qualifies for the national tournament.

“I think a good showing for us will be to place in the top 10,” said Mike Nakaue, a retired Woodbridge High science teacher who’s served as the team’s coach for the last 22 years.