STRATTANVILLE – What does it take to place in a national academic decathlon? Just ask the nationally ranked team that hails from Clarion-Limestone High School.
According to secondary high school principal Mel Aaron, the district received word late last month that the C-L High School Academic Decathlon team placed second in the nation in the Small School division of the online United States Academic Decathlon National Competition.
“We had several students medal in the events,” Aaron said of the competition which took place this past April. “Two of our students received scholarships.”
In fact, one C-L High School student, Katie Melcher, placed first overall in the national competition and brought home a $1,000 scholarship.
The United States Academic Decathlon (USAD) is a national 10-event competition consisting of a series of knowledge-based academic tests and performance exercises covering a different theme each year.
This year’s theme was the 1960s, which meant students were tasked with learning information from that decade in art, science, language and literature, music, mathematics, social science and economics. They also had to demonstrate proficiency in public speaking, essay writing and interviewing on theme-based topics.
“We work hard to memorize as much as possible about the topic,” C-L USAD team member Curvin Goheen said, noting that team members are required to participate in all 10 competition events individually. “We help each other, but obviously have our own strengths and weaknesses.”
“We succeed or fail together,” high school gifted teacher and USAD coach Lorna Ondrasik added. She explained that much of the USAD program is student-driven and team members use their strengths to teach their fellow students. “If anyone drops their end everyone fails.”
As part of the competition series, the entire team participates in multiple scrimmage qualifying rounds. With Ondrasik’s guidance, this year C-L’s team consisted of 23 students in grades nine through 12. After completing the scrimmages, USAD teams then move through the ranks of regional, state and national competitions. For these events, team participation is limited to nine members from each school — including three honor students (3.750 to 4.00 GPA), three scholastic students (3.00 to 3.749 GPA) and three varsity students (0.00 to 2.999 GPA). The nine students representing C-L in the national online competition included Melcher, Goheen, Sadie Mahle, Robyn Stahlman, Hayden Haines, Michael Aaron, Samurah Curry, Mitch Knepp and Kent Carrier.
Team members prepare for competitions the entire year, and receive one academic elective credit for their participation on the team.
The online competition is a grueling two-day event consisting of multiple hours of testing each day. The C-L team earned a total score of 28,624.4 points in the Small School Division, coming in second to University High School in California whose team scored a total of 32,969 points.
“These students are all dedicated and committed, and it’s all voluntary,” Ondrasik said, noting that the entire team won a total of 153 medals over the course of the 2018-19 USAD season, including 21 medals from the national competition. “They work hard 12 months out of the year and did a great job.”
While placing in the national online competition is no small feat, the C-L team has already set its sights on next year’s national competition slated to be held in Alaska. Team members explained that C-L was physically unable to attend nationals in Bloomington, Minn. this year because Pennsylvania can only send the top two scoring teams. C-L’s team score was topped by the winners in both the Large School Division and Medium School Division, but since C-L won the Small School Division in Pennsylvania, they were eligible to participate in the online competition.
“Our goal next year is to make the trip to Alaska,” Ondrasik said, explaining that this year marked C-L’s third time competing in the online nationals competition. She noted that the C-L High School USAD team traveled to Texas for the nationals competition two years ago.
“It was a great experience to bond with our fellow students,” C-L USAD team member Mitch Knepp added of the team’s trip to Texas. “We all had the same goal, but the experience was different for everyone.”
In the 12 years that C-L High School has had an academic decathlon team, Ondrasik credits not only the hard work of the students, but also the school’s strategy to its success.
“We found a formula that works, and we will not deviate from that formula,” she said, adding that she has picked up tips of the trade from other winning coaches over the years. “We have been state champions that last four years.”
Despite the individual aspect of the competition, the C-L USAD team members said they think of themselves more as a family working toward a common goal.
“It’s definitely a family environment,” Goheen said, adding that he not only enjoys the the skill part of the competition, but also being able to create new friendships along the way.
Fellow team member Samurah Curry agreed.
“I like the fact that I get to meet people I probably wouldn’t have had I not been a part of USAD,” Curry said, noting that USAD brings people of all backgrounds together. “It’s a team effort. Everyone is so happy when a fellow team member wins a medal.”
“For me, it’s all about gaining knowledge,” team member Kent Carrier said. “I like studying.”
Although USAD is a huge time commitment, the students said that being recognized in front of all your peers during the medal ceremony makes everything worthwhile.
“Winning a medal is like walking downstairs on Christmas morning and waiting to see what you got,” Knepp said. “That’s the closest comparison I can think of.”