MUHS team sweeps to Scholars’ Bowl title

MIDDLEBURY — Which president signed into law the Edmunds Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Pendleton Civil Service Act after he succeeded James Garfield?
If you got that correct answer (we put it at the end of the story) in a split second, you might have been able to hold your own recently at the Pre-Holiday Academic Tournament high school quiz competition sponsored by the Vermont NEA Scholars’ Bowl held at South Burlington High School. And the Middlebury Union High School Scholars’ Bowl varsity team did more than simply hold its own; it placed first from among the 48 other squads from four New England states that vied for intellectual and trivia bragging rights.
“I have got a very big and enthusiastic group,” MUHS math teacher Perry Lessing said of his Scholars’ Bowl squad, which beat favorites Hanover (N.H.) and Essex in the first two playoff rounds before prevailing over Mount Mansfield Union High School, 195-105, in the final.
“I don’t think I would have done as well as many of these kids did (in the competition),” Lessing added.
The Dec. 7 event was the first in a handful of Scholars’ Bowl competitions the Tiger team will face this academic year. And the young squad — anchored by senior Ryan Gyukeri — served notice it will be a force to be reckoned with. This was the largest tourney this team will attend, even bigger than the state competition. The Pre-Holiday Academic Tournament drew high schools from Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts. Winning the competition earned the Tigers an automatic bid to the national Scholars’ Bowl tourney next year in Atlanta.
Lessing’s team has 18 members, divided into junior varsity and varsity teams. They all practice together after school weekly, constantly reviewing practice questions culled from tournaments past. They have buzzers to replicate competition conditions.
While fielding practice questions helps, Lessing and the young competitors agree you can’t really cram for a Scholars’ Bowl event like you can for a test.
“Their body of knowledge is what they are drawing on,” Lessing said. “The practices are fun for these kids to get together and hang out with each other and enjoy one another’s company. They learn something about the structure of the tournament and they get the hang of what the questions sound like. But the team does well when it has kids that know lots of weird stuff.”
Tournament questions, Lessing noted, are largely culled from the upper-high school curriculum, stuff one might find in AP-level textbooks. But participants can also expect to field questions on sports, current events and pop culture. So it pays to be book-smart, but it also might help to know who the Dallas Cowboys selected in the first round of last year’s National Football League draft and who won the Grammy for best R&B song in 2010.
The MUHS team began practicing Nov. 6 in preparation for the Dec. 7 tourney, which featured both varsity and junior varsity (“novice”) competitions involving a combined total of 66 teams. The questions were flying at BHS, where there were 33 individual matchups going on simultaneously. Lessing helped officiate some of those matches, so he never got to see his teams compete; parents fed him information on how the Tigers were doing from time to time.
Each round featured 20 minutes of questions with a list of 24 main questions. Each question included a follow-up opportunity with three bonus questions. Each team participated in five opening rounds of match play, which determined their seeding and ability to compete for the championship in three ensuing playoff rounds.
Middlebury was one of the top eight teams following the preliminaries, entitling it to a shot at the championship. The Tigers bested the competition in route to a perfect 8-0 record and the coveted trophy.
Demonstrating it might have a dynasty in the making, the MUHS junior-varsity team finished second to Champlain Valley Union High School in the novice category.
Gyukeri finished as the tournament’s second leading scorer, notching 715 points. That means he fielded a couple hundred questions, answering more than half of them correctly. His best subjects: Social studies and pop culture. He cites math as his Achilles heel.
“A lot of it is absorption,” he said of the deep reservoir of knowledge he has accumulated (and continues to accumulate) at a tender age. “It is supposed to be in line with the stuff you learn in school … but most often it is absorption.”
Gyukeri has paid his dues; he has been a member of the MUHS Scholars’ Bowl team since his freshman year. That’s where Addison Wales is right now. Though just a freshman, Wales clearly has a keen mind with a particular interest in literature and good proficiency in math. She enjoys being on the MUHS Scholars’ Bowl team and hopes to be an active member throughout her high school career.
“One of my friends suggested I try it,” said Wales, who is a devotee of Shakespeare. “I like being on the team, testing my skills to find out what I know.”
Wales said the South Burlington tourney was a great experience. As per Murphy’s Law, she found herself knowing the answers to many of the questions she heard as an audience member or to bonus questions given to other teams.
“They didn’t do as much literature as I would have guessed,” Wales lamented. “They really focused more, I think, on history than anything.
“It was still really fun,” she added.
The answer to the history question at the start of the story is Vermont native Chester A. Arthur, 21st president of the U.S.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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