SPHS Academic Decathlon Team to Compete in Regional Championship


SPHS academic decathlon team shot.
Head coach Oliver Valcorza with academic decathletes Ryan Jeong, Dexter Hawes, Thomas Sawano, Grace Goldman, Stephen Chin, Allison Ou, Adam Hamden, Danny Safaoui and Zane Atkinson. Manager Dawson Gulluzzi rounds out the team. Photos by Harry Yadav

In a little less than two weeks, South Pasadena High School’s academic decathlon team, ranked number one in Los Angeles County for the past three years, will travel to El Rancho High in Pico Rivera to compete in day one of California’s regional championships, the precursor tournament to the state finals. Remarkably for a program that didn’t exist as recently as the 2011-12 schoolyear, the Tigers are looking to qualify for state championships for the 5th year in a row, finishing 5th, 7th and 3rd in 2017, 2016 and 2015, respectively.

If they win at the state level, they will then qualify for the national championships, to be held this year in Frisco, Texas. In its short history, South Pas hasn’t yet qualified as a team for nationals, but has sent individuals to the final competition for the past three years, including earning five of nine California slots in 2017.

Of the difficulty of not only qualifying for the state competition–only 65 of 1,000 teams make it–but out-finishing schools with four times as many students and three or four full time coaches, Tigers’ head coach Oliver Valcorza said, “there are more teams competing in LA County than the entire state of New York. Just to make the top ten in California–that in itself is a very impressive feat.”

SPHS academic decathlon team practicing before regionals on January 27.
Team members interview each other at a recent practice in preparation for regionals, which begin on Jan. 27.

For those unfamiliar with the contest, academic decathlon tests a team of nine students economics, literature, mathematics, music, science, social science, speeches, interviews and essays. That’s right, in addition to over six hours of multiple choice and written answer testing in seven subjects, the students are also required to conduct interviews, deliver speeches, and write essays. This year, students across the world will be tested on the theme of Africa.

A team must have three students with 3.75-4.0 GPAs (honors level), three with 3.0-3.749 GPAs (scholastic level), and three with sub-3.0 GPAs (varsity level). The diversity of both subjects and students, Valcorza said, is the beauty of the event. “The mission [of academic decathlon] is to have kids of all different academic achievement levels come together to compete and work together,” he said.

Valcorza’s program has had a tremendous impact on the students who have participated, taking kids who were, by their own admission, lacking direction in the classroom, and providing them with an outlet for their academic curiosity. The story of 2015 graduate Oliver Garcia, in particular, is a point of pride for Valcorza and an inspiration for the team’s current members.

Grace Goldman practicing for the upcoming academic decathlon. With coach Oliver Valcorza
Grace Goldman was caught offgaurd by one of her teammate’s questions. “If you aren’t ready for a question,” coach Oliver Valcorza told her, “your honest answer is your best.”

By the end of his sophomore year, lack of motivation and focus left Garcia with a GPA in the 2.0 range. “In class, I didn’t have an outlet,” he recalled. That summer, at the suggestion of a teacher, Garcia enrolled in the academic decathlon program under Valcorza. The discipline, the goal-oriented nature of the class, the serious, yet enjoyable environment fit the incoming junior, and by time he was a senior his GPA had risen to 3.1 overall. In Garcia’s senior year GPA alone, with AP classes weighted, he earned a 4.4.

As a result, colleges and universities were willing to overlook his struggles as an underclassman, and during his final semester, Garcia accepted a full scholarship to Carnegie Mellon, a total savings of $70,000 a year.

Adam Hamden will compete for #1 in LA County's academic decathlon
Adam Hamden, an honors level competitor, will compete for #1 in LA County.

This year, the Tigers’ honors level students, Allison Ou, Adam Hamden and Stephen Chin are all expected to compete for the top score in Los Angeles County. Valcorza expects senior Thomas Sawano, who has earned an invitation to nationals twice already, to improve on his 7th place finish in state last year. At the varsity level, alternating high scores between Grace Goldman and Danny Safaoui means the spot is still up for grabs.