3/15/2013 06:59:14 PM PDT :: SACRAMENTO -- There were just 20 minutes to go before the 61 Academic Decathlon teams were scheduled to file in for their first test, and the students from Granada Hills Charter were still studying.
Oblivious to the organized mayhem created by 500-plus other teens from around California, the Granada Hills kids took over a corner of the hallway at the Hyatt hotel in downtown Sacramento and scanned their math and science notes just one final time. Then, after a huddle around their coaches for a team cheer and a final word of encouragement, the nine-member team entered a sprawling ballroom where the tests are being held and launched its bid for a third straight state championship and the chance for a three-peat of its national title, as well.
"Everybody is locked in - today is just the same as yesterday," said Spencer Wolf, who with Matt Arnold and Nick Weber coached the Granada Hills team to the top spot for the last two years.
And yesterday - and a lot of yesterdays before that - have seen decathletes and coaches statewide immersing themselves in the study of Russia, the theme of this year's contest, with the goal of performing just as well as they possibly can.
Steven Mercado, who has partnered with Patti Gulino for the last 17 years as coach of the team representing Chaffey High in Ontario, said he started preparing for this year's event the day after the 2012 state matchup.
"They're highly motivated," he said of his students. "We finished 17th last year, and they want to transcend that and finish in the top 10 in state."
At El Camino Real Charter in Woodland Hills, a former national champion, Stephanie Franklin says she became so close to her tight-knit team that her own mother even came down from Lancaster to cook dinner for the kids. While the students are top-notch as scholars - they're ranked No. 4, based on their scores during the LAUSD contest - Franklin said the comraderie established during the hours and days and weeks and months of being together is just as important as the lessons themselves.
"These guys just have it right," she said.
During half-hour exams on Friday, students were tested on their knowledge of math and science, art and music, economics and social science, language and literature - all related to Russia. Today's schedule includes individual speeches and interviews along with the Super Quiz - the only public event.
Every hour or so, the students would spill out of the testing area, where their coaches would ply them with bananas, juice and energy bars before sending them back inside.
With their kids locked in the ballroom, coaches milled around in the hallway, renewing friendships made during past decathlons. Aimiee Gauvreau, in her third year coaching Redondo Union High caught up with Ann Cortina, the veteran coach from West High in Torrance.
Valerie Beidelman, who has coached the Burbank High team since 1986, promised something big from her team during tonight's Super Quiz. Last year, when the theme of the decathlon was Emperialism (sic), her team arrived at the quiz-show-like event decked out as Darth Vader, evoking the image of the "Star Wars" villain as leader of the Evil Empire.
On Saturday night, she promised a costume related to Russian - "but with a twist."
The 2013 state tests were scarcely under way, but Francis Poly coach Brian Block was already looking ahead to next year, when the theme will be World War I.
"These guys are brilliant, but there's just one senior on the team," he said. "I just know we're all going to be back here next year."