MORAGA -- It was a repeat of last year's finish, as the top three teams at Contra Costa County's 2013 High School Academic Decathlon on Feb. 4 mirrored the winners of 2012's competition.
The "Red Team" from Campolindo High School in Moraga took first place and will advance to the state competition March 14 to 17 in Sacramento.
This year, as last, Campolindo's "Blue Team" placed second, and Acalanes High School of Lafayette placed third for the second straight year. Other teams competing in the county decathlon were Antioch High, California (San Ramon), Freedom (Brentwood), Las Lomas (Walnut Creek), Miramonte (Orinda), Pittsburg and Dublin.
California's Academic Decathlon pits nine-member teams drawn from about 500 schools statewide in a frenzy of tests, essays, speeches and interviews. Scrimmaging over art, economics, music, language and literature, mathematics, science and social science might sound like torture to many high schoolers, but not to students like Campolindo's Zach Scherer, this year's Top Overall Academic Decathlon Individual Award winner.
"I like decathlon (club) because it's not a regular class, with a teacher lecturing for 50 minutes," the 16-year-old said. "It's students, all interested in learning."
Paul Verbanszky, an advanced-placement psychology and government economics teacher at Campolindo since 2004, leads the school's decathlon club.
"I used to be able to barely field a team. Because we're winning, more students have signed up. Now I have 40 students at the start of a year," he said.
The club's increasing popularity has little to do with students aiming to shine on college applications, Verbanszky said. Rather, the biggest motivators are the chance to excel at something other than sports and "going above and beyond" academically.
Team co-captain Evelyn Steefel, 17, said it's just fun.
"The meetings are entertaining," she said, "and there's nothing like learning new, interesting facts."
Campolindo's two teams (schools with more than nine students participating can form multiple teams) met three times a week, beginning in September.
This year's theme was Russia. With a mix of newbies and veteran decathlon members, the students divvied up the study guides democratically.
"We just put it up for whatever each person wanted to do and made sure each section got done," Steefel said.
A dizzying array of approaches, from PowerPoint presentations to "Jeopardy"-style games to pop quizzes, staved off drudgery. Winning the decathlon is more than facts; it's analysis and skillful test-taking, Scherer and Steefel said.
Scherer remembers the interview section of the competition beginning with simple questions about his interests.
"I discussed the clubs I'm in, model United Nations and math club, and how they have shaped who I am now," he said. "Then they asked, 'How has being in U.N. shaped your interest in diplomacy?' "
Steefel used the decathlon's speech portion to talk about hypocrisy in America.
"It's a country that promotes freedom and equality, but it goes against those principles in its actions. The major thing I talked about was slavery, but also affirmative action and discrimination against women. I talked about the current generation needing to stop hating, because we're not moving together as a country."
The Super Quiz -- during which teams work together, and a roaring crowd of supportive family and friends is allowed -- tested their knowledge of Sputnik 2. Another question challenged them to compare and contrast two Russian composers.
"First, you have to know about the specific facts," Scherer said. "Then, you have to know about the controversies involved, the worldwide movements, the complexities."
Verbanszky said it's not the two Campolindo teams' high scores or crafty mental gymnastics he's most proud of.
"They care about the program, but also each other," he said. "Freshmen to senior -- they help each other with homework and talk about their problems. They've become friends."