ZCHS's Brain Game Team Make the Final Four
Writer / Cindy Argentine
At the WTHR studio in downtown Indianapolis, four Zionsville High School students climb steps to an elevated platform and take seats behind their names in lights. Chuck Lofton, who will be hosting the show, greets them warmly and congratulates them on advancing this far in the academic competition. This is the semifinal round of the Brain Game, a quiz show that tests the knowledge of high school students from 48 schools in Indiana. Zionsville has made it to the final four. In this match, they compete against Avon High School. A win would send them to the championship round.
In the dark interior room, all lights are on the host and eight students about to compete. When the producer announces “Please begin,” their faces assume an air of concentration. A few alternate team members and coaches wait silently in the wings while cameramen and other TV personnel prepare to record. Students hear “Standing by…4 – 3 – 2 – 1.” Lofton announces the start of the show and asks the first question.
Avon hits the buzzer and answers correctly. Zionsville wins the next point. Avon pulls ahead, and in a few minutes, Zionsville is down five points. Cameras pause as the show goes to a commercial break. Zionsville teammates in the audience sigh and lean back in their seats. “Gosh, it’s tense,” one murmurs. “Stand by in 4…4 – 3 – 2 – 1.” Lofton opens the next segment by introducing the players. Competing for Zionsville are Rachel Miller, Caroline DeBrota, Caleb Hill and Jason Shipp.
Avon’s lead continues as the second round begins, but soon Zionsville comes within two points. After answering five questions in a row, Zionsville ties the score at 16:16. Jason’s correct answer puts Zionsville in the lead. Avon takes the next point. At the break, the game is tied again.
The third segment begins with a minute round, where each team individually answers as many questions in a row as they can. Zionsville goes first. Supporters in the audience hold their breath. Questions and answers — some right and some wrong — fly by. The team keeps calm and ends the round with seven correct responses. It’s Avon’s turn. They also answer seven correctly. The game is tied at 25. More questions follow. Students hit buzzers as fast as they dare, knowing each point is critical. Avon takes the lead. It’s 27:29. Zionsville wins the next point. It’s 28:29. Then a different, louder buzzer sounds. It’s not one of the players. It’s the signal that the game is over.
The whole room seems surprised. No big clock has displayed the final countdown; no time-outs have allowed a break to plan for a big finish. Lofton looks from the students to the camera, and gently says, “We’re going to confirm these scores.” Zionsville patiently waits. The judge verifies that the score is correct. Smiles slowly spread across the faces of the Avon team as they realize they have won.
Lofton closes, saying, “You did an awesome job. These last games have been really close. Congratulations to all of you. It’s been great.” He presents the Zionsville team with a huge $2,000 check from Westfield Insurance, the school’s prize for being a semifinalist. The Zionsville team cheers, lifts the cardboard check high over their heads, and the show ends.
As the Zionsville team steps down from the platform, the game’s judge (Dr. David Wantz) walks up to them and offers personal congratulations. He tells them how much he admires and respects them, saying they have done a super job all season.
The Zionsville students thank him and walk directly to their opponents. Shaking hands, they congratulate them. “We are rooting for you guys now,” they say to the Avon players. “If we had to lose, we wanted to lose to you.” They speak clearly, calmly and sincerely. They show marvelous grace, composure and compassion for one another and the opposing team.
As the team members gather in the center of the studio, they begin replaying critical moments from the whirlwind match in their minds. They have just displayed vast knowledge of art, biology, chemistry, geology, history, literature, music and more. They realize that several points could have gone either way. In a few cases the team knew the correct answer, but timing worked against them. “That ‘alum’ question,” Rachel says softly. “It was burning inside of me when I didn’t answer ‘alum’ because I wrote it down on my paper.” The question concerned the common name for hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate — and the correct answer was alum. In that round of the game, each person must answer alone, without help from teammates. Caroline buzzed in first and missed.
“I knew that was a Rachel question,” Caroline explains. “As soon as I heard it, I thought Rachel would answer — she’s our chemistry wiz — but when I didn’t hear her right away, I buzzed in and got it wrong.” These students make decisions in fractions of a second. Do I wait for my teammate and risk letting the other team strike first? They have practiced so many hours together that they anticipate one another’s timing and reflexes. But no two moments are ever exactly alike.
“And the Oso question…” Rachel reflects. The question dealt with the location of the devastating mudslides earlier this year. Before the full question had been asked, Rachel buzzed in and answered, “Oso,” which is the city where they were located. Lofton replied that was not correct, and the question went to Avon, who answered “Washington” correctly. In the race to the buzzer, she had anticipated more detail than was needed.
Cameras flash, players and teachers talk, and Zionsville students take turns lifting the check, which will be used by Zionsville Community Schools for academic enrichment. Friendly banter circulates despite the competitive loss.
Walking out of the studio, the Zionsville team chats and laughs as they await their ride back to school. They are busy surveying the little souvenir gifts that WTHR has given them. Caleb pauses, shakes his head slightly and says, “It was so close.” But many seem to be already looking beyond the present hour.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” Rachel says thoughtfully. “It’s just hitting me. This is my senior year. This was my last time doing this. For three years I’ve come down here and competed. The whole idea that I’m moving on — from all of my high school experience — is just starting to hit me.”
After school on the day of the loss to Avon, the teenagers are back in a classroom, sitting in two rows of desks facing one another, with practice buzzers on their desktops. The students are laughing, concentrating, drinking soda, practicing sample questions and goofing off a bit — all at the same time. They are committed to this team, and this is a scheduled practice.
Even though the Brain Game is over for the season, there are other quiz shows left to conquer. The Brain Game foursome is part of a larger group of 20 students at Zionsville High School called the academic or quiz bowl team. These students practice together every Wednesday and Friday after school all year long. The Brain Game is one of several tournaments they enter.
They start their season with a regional tournament in October sponsored by the White River Academic League. There they play teams from University High School, Brebeuf Jesuit, Brownsburg, Avon, Harrison and many other Indiana high schools. In 2010 and 2011, Zionsville was the champion of this league. Wins at this level send them to the state tournament, which they also won in 2010 and 2011. For several years the team has been given the opportunity to enroll in national competitions based on their outstanding performance. A group called Questions Unlimited hosts three tournaments each year in Washington D.C., New Orleans and Chicago. Top qualifiers from these three tournaments advance to the National Championship each June. Two varsity-level teams from Zionsville are headed to New Orleans on May 23, 2014, to compete at this event.
Paulette Berger and Amy Conrad are teachers at the high school who coach, question and encourage the quiz bowl teams. Berger has been with the team since its inception, leading them to numerous notable titles. “In 2010,” she says, “we won everything: the White River Academic League, the Brain Game and the Questions Unlimited National Championship. We had a dream team.” It consisted of Lionel Zhao, Sidney Fletcher, Tanner Thompson, Justin Ahmann and two alternates, Chris Fuqua and Lee-Wei Kao. Berger still keeps in touch with most of them via Facebook and email. Most are seniors in college. When they are back in town, they sometimes stop by to help coach and practice with current team members.
Michael Witte and Jason Shipp, both four-year members of the team, loved learning under the champions in 2011 when they were freshmen. They hope they have mentored younger players as well as the seniors who trained them. The team puts in hours of practice each week, travels to tournaments throughout the year and works on special activities like the upcoming Super Science Saturday. But they don’t count preparing for the quiz bowl as work. As Michael says, “I don’t think any of us feel like it’s a commitment; we all enjoy it so much. On Monday, we look forward to practice on Wednesday, and once we hit Wednesday, we can’t wait to meet again on Friday.”
As they prepare to graduate, the seniors on the team hope more students will get involved. “This is a really fun activity,” they all say. The current group specializes in math and science, and they clearly know a lot about many different topics. But they have identified one area in particular to strengthen. “If you know anything about sports,” says Michael, “just stop by and help us. We need you.”
A love of learning has knit together a close camaraderie among the quiz bowl teammates. Whatever the score, quiz bowl is a win in their minds. They’ve grown in knowledge, leadership, confidence and friendship by playing the Brain Game.
Meet the Brain Game Team
Caroline DeBrota, captain of the team, is a senior planning to study biomedical engineering at either Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology or Indiana University. She is a three-year member of the academic team. She also has been active in the school’s choral and drama departments, participating in Chamber Choir and musical productions. Caroline says, “With quiz bowl I’m able to use all the knowledge that I have that you wouldn’t think you would ever be asked about, and I’m doing it in a setting where I can help my team.”
Rachel Miller is a senior and three-year member of the varsity team. She is planning to study chemistry at Indiana University this fall and is considering a minor or double-major in biology, geology, or German. She has been active in 4H for ten years, and she works part-time at the Indianapolis Executive Airport. Rachel says, “I believe that if you have been blessed with a talent, you should give back.” She puts this philosophy into practice by volunteering to tutor other students in math and science: “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in high school. I love to see when somebody ‘gets it.’” She thanks many of her former ZCS teachers, especially Mr. Grimm, Mr. Bloede, Mrs. Bowling, and Mrs. Berger, for helping her to discover her own academic talent and for encouraging her to continue studying science.
Jason Shipp is a senior planning to study computer science at Purdue University this fall. He is a four-year member of the team. For the past six years, he has fenced competitively. Like many of the other team members, he loves to read. “I read perpetually – everything – fiction, autobiographies, the newspaper.” His favorite memory of quiz bowl was going to nationals his freshman year. “We were with a great group of guys that were a lot of fun. They taught us a lot about how to run the club. It stuck. Now we’re trying to pass it along to everyone else.”
Caleb Hill is a junior at ZCHS, and this is his first year on the team. He is often the first to hit the buzzer for literature, spelling, and grammar questions. (At Zionsville Middle School, his photo is on the wall for winning a spelling bee.) He’s involved in orchestra at the high school. “We call him Fireball,” say Jason and Michael. “He’s so fast. He’s a very funny guy.”
Michael Witte is a senior who is an alternate for the Brain Game. He has been on the quiz team four years. After graduation, he plans to attend Purdue University to study engineering. He is active in Boy Scouts, where he has earned the rank of Eagle Scout. He has participated in robotics and played a year of tennis as well. Michael says friendship is a key part of what makes them all want to get together to practice.
Michael DeBrota is a sophomore who serves as the other alternate for the Brain Game team. Like his sister, he is active in the school’s choral and drama programs. He sings with the Royalaires and was in the school’s musical. “Brain Game is really fun,” he says, “and you’re learning as you do it. It’s a nice competitive challenge.