Competition puts knowledge to the test

DeSales sends six students next week to the state Knowledge Bowl competition.

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DeSales senior Kincaid Schmitz looks to teammate, senior Heather Diaz for her input on an answer during a DeSales Knowledge Bowl team practice session on a Monday evening at DeSales. Monday, February 28, 2011

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Waiting to pounce once they can surmise the answer, members of DeSales' Knowledge Bowl team during a practice night at the school hover their hands over the bars that they tap when attempting to respond to an answer. Monday, February 28, 2011

WALLA WALLA -- So you know Iran was formerly Persia. That a yurt is a portable, Mongolian dwelling. Or that the pad of flesh located high on an animal's paw is called a dewclaw.

But can you summon the answer before your competitors? Can you reach for the buzzer even as the question is still being asked? And can you be confident of having the right answer with just 15 seconds to think it over?

Students from DeSales Catholic High School's Knowledge Bowl team have done so consistently and successfully this school year, taking their academic prowess all the way to state competition.

The team of six seniors will head to Central Valley High School in Spokane on March 26 for a shot at taking first place in the 2B division. The goal of coming out on top might seem ambitious if the team hadn't done just that two years ago.

Two current team members -- Kincaid Schmitz and Peter Vander Griend, both 17 -- were sophomores and part of the Knowledge Bowl team that took the state trophy out of Spokane for the first time in about 27 years.

Last year the team took fourth. The trophy went back to a Spokane-area school.

"We hope to do better than fourth," said coach Kathy Ruthven as the team prepares for state.

Even if the championship trophy remains elusive, the team has already marked several successes in the school year. During two invitational meets, DeSales took first place each time even against larger schools such as Kamiakin, Richland and Kennewick high schools, which play in higher divisions.

Students heading to state, along with Schmitz and Vander Griend, are Dani Hall, 17; Heather Diaz, 18; Hanna Schoeppner, 18; and Joshua Scheel, 18. Megan Moberg and Jinwoo Chang also participated in the initial senior team.

Perhaps not as well known as DeSales' athletics, Knowledge Bowl is still a popular activity at the school. This year 36 students in different grades participated, making six teams of six students each.

Only the school's top team goes on to qualify for state, and the team is usually made up of all seniors. Schmitz and Vander Griend were exceptions, with Schmitz being part of the top team all four years at DeSales, and Vander Griend joining the team as a 10th-grader, when he began at the school.

In competition, students take a written exam as a team for points. But the real challenge, and where the heart of the competition lies, is in the oral rounds. The questions can draw from geography, history, math, science and occasionally popular culture. Three teams always face off in the oral rounds.

The DeSales team practices once a week, and compete against each other by simulating the oral rounds.

The students meet once a week, in their school's library, to practice. Without another team to compete against, the students face off against each other in friendly -- but highly competitive -- sport.

At each of two tables, the students sit relaxed, but their hands hover over a sensor bar resting on the tables that buzzes them and alerts their coach they're ready to answer. The quickest draw gets 15 seconds to answer a question, with time to discuss with team members.

"It's also not as much what you know, as how quickly you can come up with it," Schmitz said.

Or in other words: think fast.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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