STERLING – It's trivia on steroids, and these kids have bulked up big time. They are the jocks of genius.
In a warm, cramped classroom at Newman Central Catholic High School on Tuesday evening, the Comets’ varsity team squared off against Bureau Valley in one of the first Scholastic Bowl tournament matches of the evening.
If you've never been to a bowl tournament, you're missing out on a dizzying display of teen intellect.
Topics come in six categories: literature and grammar, social studies, math, science, art and miscellaneous, which includes pop culture and sports.
Each student is responsible for two areas of expertise, which he or she chooses. During play, the five panelists can consult with one another to provide an answer. Players move in and out of the panel, just like a sports team.
In the first round alone Tuesday, answers required knowledge of subjects including, but in no way limited to: tectonic plates, Greek deities, opera, Charles Lindbergh and the Nazis, Indonesian islands, Pontius Pilate, eminent domain, the Fibonacci number, J.R.R. Tolkein, uranium, the moon and New Jersey politics.
The Comets had it in spades: They won the first match, 380 to 80.
Like any good coach, Ann Propheter would love to see more kids participate.
Bowl participation not only looks good on college applications, it also helps students prepare for the ACT and SAT tests, Propheter said. During the rounds, they have only 10 seconds to answer a question, which teaches them to stay calm under pressure and think on their feet, both good test-taking skills. Good life skills as well.
Her dozen-and-half or so team members have been practicing after school once or twice a week since September, and playing in one tournament a week, working toward the goal of a state championship. Practice questions come from a company called National Academic Quiz Tournaments Inc., which provides sample questions much like spelling bee companies provide sample words.
But that's not the only way these kids learn. Propheter provides websites to study on certain topics (Russian authors, for instance), but these are smart, smart kids, and all fairly self-motivated. They practically soak up knowledge from the air.
"Any kind of reading that you do is basically studying for it," said Ken Ellorando, 17, of Dixon. The soft-spoken junior with a shock of black hair and ready smile has been participating in the bowl for 5 years, his first 2 while in in middle school. Astronomy is one of his specialties.
Lessons learned come in handy outside of competition, too, said team captain Elliott Frankfother, 16, a serious, straightforward junior from Rock Falls with an eidetic (photographic) memory.
"You can converse with other people better because you know more," said Frankfother, whose strongest category is literature. Last year, he was named first-team, all-state Scholastic Bowl, a noteworthy achievement for a sophomore.
Junior Jakob Frank, 16, of Sterling, also takes classes at Sauk Valley Community College. Students shouldn't be intimidated by the bowl, he said.
"You don't need to be ridiculously smart, because there are so many topics," said Frank, a math whiz who exudes self-confidence. "It's worth a try."
About the bowl
Newman is part of the newly expanded Illinois High School Association's Three Rivers Conference – what used to be comprised of eight schools grew to 15, as of this school year.
Newman is in the East Division, along with Amboy, Burea Valley, Kewanee, Princeton, Hall and St. Bede high schools, all of which participated Tuesday. Morrison, Erie, Prophetstown and Fulton are among the schools in the West Division.
It's not too late to catch a match or two. The Scholastic Bowl is in the middle of its season – practices began in September, tournaments are ongoing throughout the conference area, and the state final is March 21 in Peoria.
Go to ihsa.org or call your participating school for a schedule and more information.