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Tiger team takes fifth at national ‘Quiz Bowl’

By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — It’s quite common for Scholars’ Bowl competitions to feature history questions for teams of inquisitive public high school students.
After this past weekend, the Middlebury Union High School team could itself become the answer to a history question at some future Scholars’ Bowl tournament.
That’s because the MUHS team of Josh Bechhoefer, Dace Eaton, Henry Ganey, Ronan Howlett and Elias Wyncoop took fifth place out of 80 teams who competed in the 2016 Small School National Championship Tournament, commonly referred to as the “quiz bowl.” In the process, the team set an all-time success mark for MUHS and established a new standard of excellence for future Vermont Scholars’ Bowl squads.
MUHS previously went to the nationals in 1985 and 2006.
“I’m very proud of the team,” said MUHS Scholars’ Bowl Coach Perry Lessing, an MUHS math teacher. “They are a really nice group of kids. They are really solid and get along very well together. Often on these Scholars’ Bowl teams, there will be someone who dominates with a lot of strong interest and esoteric knowledge, but that isn’t the case here. It is a well-balanced group of smart kids … They all have lots of strengths.”
The national tournament ranked all 415 players in attendance. The individual MUHS player rankings were 37, 127, 131, 133 and 166.
“That shows really nice depth and balance in the group,” Lessing said.
The MUHS team had a fairly long and eventful road to the national competition, held April 30-May 1 in Chicago. The squad competed in a handful of tournaments during the course of the academic year en route to punching its ticket to the nationals. The first was a tourney in South Burlington, during which the Tigers competed against teams from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. Then there was a smaller tilt at Champlain Valley Union High School involving a dozen Vermont schools. Middlebury’s fantastic five went on to win the “small school” statewide competition in Barre this past March that ultimately qualified them for Chicago; and then took second (to Burlington High School) in the Vermont NEA’s state tourney held in April.
“That really created the enthusiasm to send us to Chicago,” Lessing said of the NEA tournament performance.
Kevin Commo, director of the Vermont-NEA Scholars’ Bowl, sent a letter to the MUHS team, praising it for its valiant performance in the state tourney. MUHS teachers and administrators got a hold of that letter and decided the fantastic five had earned a trip to the national quiz bowl in Chicago, open to “small” high schools with enrollments of fewer than 500 students in grades 10-12. So the MUHS teachers’ union and the school administration offered to split the team’s travel and lodging accommodations for the trip.
“The school and teachers union have been extremely generous in paying for just about all of this,” Lessing said of the financial support.
The crew left bright and early out of Burlington International Airport at 3:45 a.m. this past Friday, April 29. The contestants knew their only guarantee would be a full day of competition on Saturday, April 30. If they did well on Saturday, they would live to fight another day.
They sure did.
Middlebury was the only Vermont team at the national championship. The squad finished the preliminary rounds with a 7-2 record, which qualified it for the double-elimination playoffs on Sunday. Questions were based on an advanced public high school curriculum, along with some pop culture, sports, as well as a lot of music, art, literature, math, science and history.
Competitors experienced some nail-biting moments. For example, Middlebury Union defeated Glasgow B from Kentucky by the narrow margin of 315-290 during round 9. It then spent four playoff games on the brink of elimination, defeating Centralia from Missouri, Lisle from Illinois, and BASIS Scottsdale A from Arizona before falling to Piasa Southwestern A from Illinois, ending their shot at the title.
When the dust had cleared on Sunday, MUHS had finished an impressive fifth out of the 80 teams nationwide that participated in the competition.
It was “by far the best finish a team from our league has ever had in a tossup-bonus national tournament,” according to Commo.
He added MUHS’s overall 10-4 mark “set a state record for wins at a national tournament.”
MUHS Principal Bill Lawson heaped praise on the team.
“I am immensely proud of our Scholars’ Bowl team — they demonstrate our school’s commitment to academic performance,” he said.
Some of the MUHS teams favorite questions of the competition included:
•  After one event of this type, a man said, “There is always a woman involved.”
(An airline hijacking.)
•  This hero, whose childhood friend was Tommy Eliot, later became who?
(Batman.)
•  This piece is considered weak if it is backwards or reversed.
(A pawn.)
•  In this tournament John Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut.
(Wimbledon.)
MEET THE TEAM
The Independent interviewed four of the five Tiger team members on Thursday prior to their departure. Howlett was unavailable that day.
Wyncoop, a senior, is rounding out his third year as a member of the MUHS Scholars’ Bowl team.
He listed his strongest competition subjects as history, politics and pop culture. He is also comfortable answering some art, literature and science questions.
“No math,” he said emphatically, with a smile. “I think I have answered no math questions, ever.”
Ganey, a junior, has been a Scholars’ Bowl team member since his freshman year.
A self-proclaimed “history nerd,” Ganey also specializes in politics, government and geography. He lets his colleagues field the math and science questions.
“Every once in a while, you’ll come across a question that you know the answer to on the third word; it just clicks,” Ganey said. “Other times, you buzz in and it’s wrong.”
He, too, was excited to head off to Chicago on Friday and face what was at that point a largely unknown challenge.
“We could be the best there or the worst there; we’ll probably end up being somewhere in the middle,” Ganey said. “We have a good team this year.”
Eaton, a junior, joined the team at the beginning of his sophomore year. He has really enjoyed the competitions.
“It took me a while to get into it, but this year I have gone to most of the competitions and liked it a lot,” he said.
Eaton revels in being able to put to use some of the “random knowledge” he has absorbed in and out of school. It could be a line from a movie you saw a few years ago, or the name of an obscure poet whose work you briefly studied in ninth grade. He recalled being able to answer a question about Andrew Jackson based on his recollection of a book that noted the late president’s use of a hickory cane.
“It’s nice to know that what I am learning has been validated in a way other than a test in school,” said Eaton, who listed his competition strengths as science, math, and pop culture and, to a lesser extent, geography and history.
Bechhoefer, a junior, joined the team during the middle of his sophomore year. His algebra teacher suggested he join the Scholars’ Bowl team upon reading his responses to a test in which he used the letters of philosopher René Descartes’ name to solve a series of math problems. It should come as no surprise then that his favorite competition subjects involve philosophy, along with classic literature, geography and history.
Bechhoefer has learned some tricks over the years. He said it’s a virtual lock that the late artist Salvador Dali will be the subject of at least one question during the course of a tourney. The Mona Lisa painting is also perennial question fodder, he said, as are Grant Wood paintings.
“Those are some of the things you want to study,” he said, adding there are websites offering plenty of sample questions for some pre-tournament studying.
Lessing was not only ecstatic with his team’s performance. He was blown away by the sportsmanship exhibited by the Tigers and their opponents.
“I was also impressed and pleased — but not surprised — to see how friendly and loose our kids were throughout,” Lessing said. “There was a group from Oklahoma that we became friends with after competing against them. We met them for lunch on Sunday. And after they lost in the playoffs, they came to our matches to cheer us on. Their coach said they come to the national tournament most years and that we were the first team to reach out to them.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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