Buzz! Buzz! Buzz! This weekend, Blake’s It’s Academic team scored a perfect 645 points in the semifinals, defeating both Whitman and Landon high schools. They are now one of three teams continuing to the finals from over eighty schools that originally participated in the Washington league of the quiz show.
The starting team consists of senior captain Olivia Gyapong, and junior players Theo Sodani and Peter Willis. Sophomore Zachary Musyimi currently acts as the standing alternate, and will likely be a starting member of the team next year. These Bengals have a vast history of success on the show, reaching the finals last year with yet another shockingly impressive score of 19-0.
“I doubt any other team has put in as much time and energy as we have into winning the competition. The team that we have is dedicated, and that makes what we do about ten billion times easier,” says teacher sponsor Joseph Caulfield, who has been coaching the Bengals for almost 24 years.
The team’s astonishingly high scores are the product of copious amounts of preparation. Prior to quarantine, they gathered in Mr. Caulfield’s room during lunch and after school to practice each day. Now the team meets virtually four times a week, starting the day off right with a bowl of trivia before school. During a practice session, they play through full games Mr. Caulfield has transcribed to simulate real competitions. From grab bag rounds to quick-fire toss-up rounds, this team covers it all. Assistant coach Charles Kalina notes what answers the players missed and writes those up so the teammates can prepare for a test on all the topics covered during that session.
On their journey to prepare for the semifinals, the Bengals memorized every president by term, the nation’s world capitals, the names of Joe Biden’s cabinet and much more. To the average person, that may seem excessive, but even the most mundane factoid can be the difference between success and failure for the team.
“There are some very interesting parts of history and some people with the strangest names that I wouldn’t have a chance to learn about outside of this club,” says Sodani. “A lot of jokes also arise from these random tidbits which make the club extremely enjoyable.”
The students aren’t the only ones working hard towards victory. Mr. Caulfield has spent hours transcribing questions from over two thousand recordings of It’s Academic for the team to use in practice. It should come as no surprise that in 2014, he led the Bengals to become the first school in the history of the quiz show to win three consecutive championships. “By the time we won the fourth championship, I was starting to wonder if I had unknowingly made some kind of deal with Mephistopheles [the devil],” says Mr. Caulfield.
While the new normal has not had a huge impact on virtual practices, the competitions are in an entirely different ball field. Once upon a time before the pandemic, players would have to hit a red buzzer at speeds that would shock unsuspecting audience members, just for the chance to answer a question. Now each team meets individually over a video call with Hilary Howard, the show’s host, to record a match. “It feels like each team is taking separate exams, and we are all competing for the highest score in the class,” says Sodani. It doesn’t help that teammates cannot always confirm answers with one another during a virtual match.
It is safe to say that the lack of buzzers and face-to-face competition has eliminated some of the excitement of the games, but tension appears to be at an all-time high for those participating. Because teams cannot play live against one another, they do not know where they stand in the competition until after all the scores have been released. The only way for a team to be certain that they have a standing in the next round is if they receive a perfect score.
“We were all extremely nervous about whether or not we would come out victorious [in the play-offs] because we were kept completely in the dark for a long time… since we missed two questions, we had no clue how well the other teams were doing,” says Sodani. “During that waiting period, I don’t think any of us thought we would win.”
What’s next for the team? The Bengals will face off against St. Anselm’s Abbey School and Richard Montgomery High School in the Washington finals, marking their thirteenth finals appearance in only 21 years of official participation in the show. The winner of the Washington finals will advance to the Intercity games, and play against Howard High School (the champions of the Baltimore tournament) and the future winner of Central Virginia’s finals.
The long road from Mr. Caulfield’s classroom to his personal Zoom room has been bumpy. Somehow, these Bengals dodged every bullet and once again showed that they can come out on top. While it would be unwise to place any additional pressure on the team, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that these trivia connoisseurs have what it takes to bring yet another title to Blake high school.
Be sure to watch the team’s exceptional performance in the semifinals, which airs at 10 am Saturday, June 5. Future updates on the most recent airing dates of the show can be found here.