Orange County High School’s Academic Quiz Team has been invited to participate in the High School National Championship Tournament for the first time in its history. The tournament will be held virtually this year on May 29 and 30 and is hosted by the National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT) company. Team coaches Stephen Cunningham and Patrick Angotti view this as a huge milestone for the program and have created a packed schedule of practices and exercises to prepare for the tournament.
Cunningham became a social studies teacher at the high school in 2006 and took over as the head coach of the team shortly thereafter in 2007. The team has seen success during his tenure, such as winning their regional championship in 2013 and being invited to a number of invitational tournaments. However, being invited to participate in the NAQT tournament came as a shock.
“We had never really thought about until we went to regionals and finished in second place,” Angotti said. “And that was it. Then the other night we got this invitation to the national championships. I was so surprised because we hadn’t won anything, but I guess it was based on our performance at regionals.”
Quiz competitions in Virginia are broken up into different levels, each increasing in prominence. The first level is the Scholastic Bowl hosted every year by the Virginia High School League (VHSL). The next level is the televised competition “It’s Academic,” the longest running quiz show in TV history. Originally started by a partnership of schools in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metro areas, “It’s Academic” expanded to include a select group of schools from Central Virginia. The show is considered to be at the same level as the Scholastic Bowl but can offer teams a greater degree of exposure. The highest level is the competition run by NAQT. Despite being the youngest of the three tournaments (NAQT was founded in 1996), it is generally considered the toughest and most prestigious. NAQT also hosts an individual player tournament where star players from the best teams in the country can prove their mettle.
Angotti, who teaches algebra at the high school, joined as assistant coach of the academic team last year after he saw his daughter participate in a match.
“When I started working for the school system last year, I had never even heard of the academic team,” he said. “My daughter was on the team and she told me she had a match, so I went after work one day to watch her play. I totally fell in love with it. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I’m a sports guy, but it is kind of a mix of competition and academia. How can you go wrong with that?”
According to Cunningham, an average season in the VHSL Jefferson District, where the OCHS academic team competes, is often more challenging to get through than “It’s Academic” or the NAQT tournament.
“We play in such a difficult district and when that level is more difficult than the region or state, then it tends to catch up to you,” he said. “When we go outside of our district, the competition often gets easier for us.”
The difference between the Scholastic Bowl and “It’s Academic” is based more on format than rigorousness.
“The central Virginia teams like us, Western Albemarle, Charlottesville, Louisa and Fluvanna have a regular season based on the Scholastic Bowl that’s run by VHSL,” Cunningham said. “The ‘It’s Academic’ questions are easy, and you can usually get your answer inside of a sentence. The Scholastic Bowl questions are set up to be about a paragraph long.”
“It’s [Academic] is made up of nine teams,” he continued. “There are three games of three teams each competing. The winner of each one of those games, plays in the championship match or the Super Bowl as they call it. Usually, that all takes place in the same day. But once the format changed last year because of COVID, it switched to all virtual.”
Each of the coaches has their own ideas and ambitions for what direction the team should be heading in.
“Truthfully, I don’t have that much experience with ‘It’s Academic,’” Angotti said. “That’s more of Mr. Cunningham’s thing. I look more at the national level. My goal is to take our team to Kansas and have them perform there at the National Championships. But I think we work well with each other.”
The team this season is relatively young compared to previous years. It is entirely made up of sophomore and freshman students. One of those sophomores, Kaitlyn Shackleton, serves as a team captain and is the group’s resident Shakespeare expert.
“We strategized some before It’s Academic,” Shackleton said. “We just wanted to be careful and pass on questions we weren’t sure about. One of my responsibilities as a captain is that if two teammates give me different answers, I have to choose which one I think is right.”
“Usually, if I get a literature question about anything related to [Edgar Allan] Poe, I can answer it,” she continued. “I’ve memorized some of Poe’s poems, so when we get questions about one of them, I’m immediately on the buzzer. Mostly it’s just random facts I’ve picked up over the years by reading a lot, whether its books or articles online.”
Shackleton naturally gravitates toward the literature and fine arts categories, but her teammates have their own areas of expertise. Jackson Hamilton, a promising freshman player, excels at math, science, geography and history.
Cunningham and Angotti are both impressed by Hamilton’s abilities and level of maturity in his first year on the team.
“With Jackson, I feel like the sky’s the limit for him,” Cunningham said. “He’s super-competitive. At the beginning of the year, we had competitions in certain subjects. We had a school-wide competition to determine who was the best at math; Jackson won that. He won math and geography. Trevor Longerbeam (another member of the academic team) won in mythology and Kaitlyn won in literature.”
Hamilton, Shackleton, Longerbeam and sophomore Matthew Dinsmore are the primary starters on the team with three other players serving as alternates during tournaments.
“It starts at practice,” Cunningham said. “We keep track of the number of questions people answer. So, if you show up to practice and answer more questions, then that’s going to make you someone we consider for a starter. When we develop our starting team, we try to have a group that is diverse. Personally, I never like to start all boys or all girls. Diversity in personalities and also areas of expertise is very helpful. The kids who have really done well on the team over the years, are the ones who read a lot.”
Not satisfied with resting on his laurels, Hamilton said he has big plans for his next three years of high school.
“Jackson came to me a couple of months ago, when I was flirting with the idea of trying to get us into some tournaments in other states and said, ‘I’m not here to just try and win some matches locally, I want us to win a national championship.’” Angotti said. “He told me that he wants to compete individually and become the best player in the country. That just spoke volumes.”
“I was bouncing a few ideas around with Mr. Cunningham recently,” he continued. “We need to set some goals and look beyond just the regionals or the states. My personal goal is I want this team to be ranked in the top 100 nationally by 2024 and win a national championship by 2028.”
Part of growing the team and winning tournaments in Angotti’s mind, boils down to marketing and recruitment.
“You have to build that foundation,” he said. “That’s one of the things we lack right now. We were fortunate enough to get some really good players. But, recruiting has been really hard, especially because of COVID. I’ve started a kind of hybrid club with students from Locust Grove and Prospect Heights middle schools. I’m getting all of these students that are now interested in it. It’s a community. I’ve made so many acquaintances across the country, just by being involved in this. And we promote it as such. When we’re reaching out to the middle schools, we tell the kids, ‘you know you’re going to have a friend when you come to high school.’ Our high school team has totally taken the middle school team under its wing.”
The bridge that Angotti has built between the middle schools and the high school helped attract the interest of Hamilton.
“I had heard about the team from one of my teachers in middle school and they thought that I should join it,” Hamilton said. “I’ve really always been interested in math and geography. I did the geography bee in middle school and won it when I was an eighth-grader, but the state competition was canceled.”
So far Hamilton is settling into his role on the team and is gaining the confidence he needs to hone his skills.
“I think it’s been going pretty well for me,” he said. “I wasn’t doing great at the beginning of the season because I hadn’t done academic team before and was a little hesitant. But after the first few games, I started to get much better.”
Many of the players on the team prefer the style of questions used in the NAQT tournament, including Shackleton, who said she finds the pace of “It’s Academic” distracting at times.
“It’s Academic can be really fun with how speedy it is, but it’s also kind of nerve wracking being on television,” she said. “Like if you say something embarrassing at the NAQT competition then it’s not a big deal. If it’s a bad answer only the people on the call will remember it.”
The team has been working on acclimating to the virtual environment they will be playing in at the NAQT later this month.
“Last year, we didn’t win a regular season match at all,” Angotti said. “It was tough. This season, we actually came out just about .500. That was because we were forward thinking about doing things virtually. We were practicing for months before the season started on how to use an online buzzer system. Learning to use Zoom to the best of our advantage. It really helped when we finally started the season. I’m hoping going into the national championship, that preparation will benefit us.”