State competition no trivial matter

Knowledge Bowl teammates Frances Gill, left, and Sean Byrnes, right, listen to a question during a recent practice session in preparation for the upcoming state tournament in Camas, Wash.  - Dan Catchpole / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Knowledge Bowl teammates Frances Gill, left, and Sean Byrnes, right, listen to a question during a recent practice session in preparation for the upcoming state tournament in Camas, Wash.
— image credit: Dan Catchpole / Snoqualmie Valley Record

Four Wildcats are going to a state tournament this week.

The event? Knowledge Bowl.

The four Mount Si High School students will match wits on Saturday, March 28, with 40 teams from across the state in Camas, Wash. The team finished sixth of 13 in the division, and has already faced some of the toughest competition in the state.

It’s been three years since Mount Si sent a team to the state tournament, which it had gone to for five years straight prior to that.

“We’ve been in the desert ever since then,” said Gene Clegg, the team’s coach and head of Mount Si’s science department.

The team isn’t feeling the pressure, though. They like the heat of competition.

To win, players must combine split-second reactions with brain power. In Knowledge Bowl, competitors have to grapple with questions ranging from natural science to history to literature to culture and beyond. Competitors don’t have any luxury of time, but must react as fast as possible, since teams can ring in before the official is finished reading the question.

There’s a rush of adrenaline right after you answer a question correctly, said team member George Koser.

The all-senior team is rounded out by Zach Whetsel, Sean Byrnes and Frances Gill.

The team practices with Mount Si’s B-squads to prepare for the tournament.

Practice is full of laughs and distractions, until Clegg reads a question, then the team members’ faces turn stone cold, their bodies tense with hands poised just a hair’s breadth above the buzzer. They thirstily drink in each word of the question, turning it over dozens of times in seconds in their heads, looking for what is being asked and searching for an answer.

“When the question’s being read, there’s so much tension in the room. Everyone’s hands are just a centimeter over the bar,” Koser said.

It is critical to know how questions are formed so you can figure out what is being asked before the question is finished, Whetsel said.

That is the strength of their rival, Kennedy High School in Seattle.

“They slap in so fast, you can’t even hear the question. All they need is the context” and they know the answer, Koser said.

Mount Si’s last match against Kennedy was their best performance against their rivals, but it still ended in a bitterly close loss, 17-13. They’ll possibly face them again in Camas.

They’ll also be facing many schools from Eastern Washington, which are usually weaker competition.

“Our goal is to take out Eastern Washington, and anything we get past that is just a blessing,” Whetsel said.

Like any successful team, everyone has their specialty.

“It has the same structure as, say, basketball. You’re on a team with other people, and you have to play your strengths,” said Clegg, adding that he’s never seen a successful team with one dominant player. He used to coach football and track at Mount Si.

“Whenever there’s a math question, we all turn to [Frances],” said Byrnes, whose strength is history and literature.

He recruited Gill this year, he said, half-joking.

Byrnes started competing in Knowledge Bowl last year as a junior. Whetsel, whose teammates said was the strongest player, began as a sophomore. Koser is the team’s veteran, competing since the eighth grade.

“Because it’s a team effort, knowing the answer isn’t always necessary,” Byrnes said.

After tapping the buzzer, teams have a few seconds to confer. One team member might have an idea about what the answer could be, which sparks the correct answer in another person’s head.

Collaboration is one of this team’s strengths, said Clegg, who’s coached Knowledge Bowl teams at Mount Si for 24 years.

“Whenever someone misses a question, they don’t get on each other, but they encourage each other,” he said.

Another team he coached a few years ago knew more than the present team, but had very negative team dynamics, which led to their defeat in the state tournament.

“There’s a lot of ego involved,” Clegg said.

Coaching Knowledge Bowl is invigorating for him as a teacher because the students are motivated just as they are on a sports team, he said.

Knowledge Bowl is misunderstood by some of their classmates, who think of it as something for “nerds,” the team’s members said.

But they’re all regular high school kids with normal social lives, they said.

They do Knowledge Bowl for the thrill of the competition. Their talents just happen to be more in brains, than in brawn.

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