It’s 10 in the morning after his senior prom, and unlike many of his classmates, Adam Newman is awake. The Walter Johnson High School senior skipped the post-prom activities so he could get enough rest before today’s championship match. But the school’s No. 1 tennis player isn’t wearing tennis whites or holding a racquet; instead, Newman wears a dark suit and a bright pink tie. For the second year in a row, Newman and the Walter Johnson Wildcats are facing off in the final round of “It’s Academic,” NBC4’s Saturday morning high school quiz show.
Along with his coach and teammates, Newman waits for the show to begin in the studio’s cafeteria, which serves as a green room. Senior Andre Joutz is giving classmate Alex Price a quick chemistry refresher. “Ionic is when electrons are not shared,” he explains. The team’s science guy, Joutz, will not be part of the squad for today’s final. Since “It’s Academic” allows only three players per squad, he and the fourth member of the W] team rotate through the third spot. Today, it’s junior Tianhui Shen who will join Newman and Price.
The players and coaches from Rockville’s Richard Montgomery and Washington’s Gonzaga arrived earlier; some are going over practice questions, while others watch the television, which shows Walter Johnson’s quarterfinal victory. After drawing for position—Walter Johnson will sit in the middle—the team heads to the hallway for a pep talk from its coach, Mark Whipple, a physics and astronomy teacher.
“It’s no secret to you guys that the secret to this game is who gets in first on the buzzer,” Whipple tells the four students huddled around him. Whipple’s tweed blazer is accented by his green tie, worn in honor of the Wildcats’ colors. “I am convinced we can beat these guys on speed.”
“Remember to listen for that last syllable, and how much it can change your answer. Make sure you listen.” He ends his pre-game talk with three Words: “Focus, focus, focus.”
Speed has been the Walter Johnson teams’ strategy all year. After winning the “It’s Academic” Washington area championship last year and then defeating the Baltimore and Central Virginia champions in the show’s “Super Bowl,” the team entered the season last fall wearing a target. They knew that other teams out there might be smarter, so they would simply have to be faster to the buzzer. Early in the year, Whipple began preparing his team to beat their main rival, Richard Montgomery. Knowing that Richard Montgomery, along with its captain, senior Chris Ray, probably had an edge in terms of knowledge, Whipple worked on improving his players’ quickness. If they could get most of the questions that both teams knew, the Walter Johnson boys would win.
Calling the group of about a dozen students WJ’s “It’s Academic” team is a little misleading. While the televised tournament is one of the highlights of the year, the team participates in a tournament nearly every weekend and in the Montgomery Beltway Academic League. Add to that multiple practices during their lunch periods, and the academic competitors have committed a large chunk of their high school careers to the team.
In early October, with a few tournaments already under their belts, 10 teenagers hurried into Whipple’s second floor classroom. A few quickly set up the buzzers—they spread their sodas and sandwiches on the desks and settled in for their 40-minute lunch period. Whipple sat in the front of the room, questions in hand. In between bites of his tuna salad and crackers, the 51-year-old Dartmouth grad rifled questions at the students, topics ranging from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to ancient Greek literature. Someone nails the Greek literature question, while no one knows much about Buffy. These aren’t typical high school kids.
With a year of experience on Whipple’s A Team, senior Alex Price has a spot in the lineup wrapped up. But he still jumps in on nearly every question, and the frustration mounts when he gets one wrong—which happens quite often today. If anyone on the A Team is the risk-taker, it’s Price. Usually the risk is a good idea.
“Alex just knows a lot,” says Newman, his co-captain. “He’s well-rounded, and he studies a lot for [It’s Academic].”
But sometimes, Price’s confidence can backfire. “My weaknesses are I try to anticipate too much and I neg a lot,” Price says, using the quiz bowl lingo for buzzing in first and answering incorrectly.
Whipple tallies the scores during each practice, so the players take them seriously—but they are not hyper-competitive with each other and usually each question is followed by an explanation from one player to another. Early in the year, Whipple can tell from the practices who his A Team will be, and which players will compete on the B Team—the “It’s Academic” version of junior varsity—which competes in many of the same tournaments as the A Team, but not on television.
“After about a month, the numbers have real significance,” he explains. “I try to take myself out of the decision that way.”
Newman and Price, the only two with any experience in the televised matches, were locks from the beginning. But their classmate, Joutz, missed several practices and lost his spot early in the year to junior Shen. Eventually, Whipple decided to alternate the two players for the team’s “It’s Academic” tapings—most other tournaments had four players on a team, so both would be able to compete.
Whipple especially didn’t want to give up on Joutz, since the coach had recruited him to the team. In eighth grade, Joutz appeared on a Fox television show “The Search for the Smartest Kid in America.” Whipple recognized Joutz, whom he had coached in Little League baseball.
“I watched it and said ‘Okay, I’m recruiting this kid big time,’” Whipple says. So Whipple stopped by his house and gave the family tickets to one of Walter Johnson’s “It’s Academic” tapings.
Recruiting players is not a common activity for Whipple, but obsessing over “It’s Academic” certainly is, and is likely responsible for his graying hair. Whipple owns a van solely so he can drive the entire team to tournaments; he swears he will sell it the day he quits coaching. He also co-coaches the Maryland state team, an all-star squad that traveled to Florida in June to compete against other state teams. The school pays him for 100 hours of work—he estimates that he put in more than 300 hours this year, his 13th season as coach at Walter Johnson.
A native of Westchester County, N.Y., Whipple competed on his high school and college gymnastics teams, although his first love was baseball. He first became interested in quiz bowls as a teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Howard County, attending some practices and competitions. At Walter Johnson, Whipple first found himself coaching sports—volleyball, baseball, gymnastics.
“I gave all that up because my [now] ex-wife didn’t like [that I was] coaching,” Whipple says. But when the “It’s Academic” job opened up, Whipple took it. Four years after taking the job, Whipple and his wife split up. His current wife, Gaithersburg High School French teacher Renee Raffini, “is a big supporter… I think she recognizes how important [coaching the team is to me],” Whipple adds.
“I didn’t realize I was going to have this much success,” he says. Walter Johnson hasn’t lost a first round game on “It’s Academic” during his tenure, and the team has had success in other competitions as well, including “Quizmaster Challenge,” a tournament that airs throughout the year on Montgomery County Public Schools’ cable channel, created and hosted by Blake High School journalism teacher Kevin Keegan.
“I think there are a lot of schools where the person who is the adult with the team can’t figure out whether he’s a sponsor or a coach,” says Keegan, a former coach of Team Maryland. “Mark Whipple is definitely a coach. [Whipple’s students are] better players than they would be if they didn’t practice.”
After Whipple’s pep talk before the final, the four Walter Johnson players gather in the hall outside the studio without their coach.
“We’re the best team,” Newman says. “We’re so much faster.”
“It’s been a good four years,” Price adds.
Joutz, the alternate today, is quiet—unlike Newman, he went to the prom breakfast and didn’t get home until nearly 5 am. “I feel like I got hit by a train,” he says when he arrives, wearing the baseball cap that he seems to only take off for televised broadcasts and swim meets. Although at times his coach and his teammates have questioned his commitment, Joutz has stayed an integral part of the team. He joined the team as a freshman, but this is the first year that Joutz has played a role on the televised team—sometimes that inexperience shows, his teammates say. “Andre is a really smart kid,” Newman says. “This is his first year on TV, so he’s not as composed as I would like him to be.”
Shen is also quiet. He doesn’t answer many questions during a match, but when he does he is usually right. Shen is the go-to guy in subjects like mythology and the arts. As the junior on the team, he has the least amount of experience, but next year he will have to step up into the role of captain. The Shen-led team will probably look a lot different than the Newman-Price team. “We’ll play by a different strategy,” Shen predicts. “I don’t think we’ll play quite as fast.”
For now, Shen listens to Newman describe what it felt like to win the championship last year. “That feeling, when you win that game, is something that you’ll always have,” he says. The four boys begin to walk toward the studio, serious expressions on all their faces. “We’re gonna win this game,” Newman tells his team.
The big news today is that Mac McGarry, the host whose name is synonymous with “It’s Academic” in the Washington area, has the flu and won’t be asking the questions. McGarry, has hosted the show since its inception in 1961, and according to one of the producers this is only the second time he has missed a taping—the last was in 1966. Dave Zahren, the host of the Baltimore “It’s Academic,” will be hosting instead. Along with McGarry, Sophie Altman, the show’s creator and executive producer, is not in the studio today. But her family is well represented—two of her daughters, Susan and Nancy, serve as the show’s producer and assistant producer. And four of Sophie’s grandchildren, all of them Bethesda-area high school students, work as interns on the show.
“In my family we really prize academics,” says Nancy, who first joined her mom on the set when she was 11 years old. A lawyer and former congressional aide, she plans on spending more time working on the family business in the future. “I’m the junior partner,” she says.
The three teams enter the studio to applause from the audience, which includes parents, friends, family, teachers and even the Walter Johnson cheerleaders and pep band. The team places one of its lucky charms—a baseball with a Walter Johnson autograph printed on it—on the desk in front of them. Their classmate and national champion baton twirler Susan Garabedian is also in the room, ready to perform when the show returns from a commercial break. At a school like Walter Johnson, whose football and basketball teams haven’t had great success, the champion quiz bowl team is something to cheer about.
Host Zahren starts the game off with questions on women in government.
“Currently on the Supreme Court—” The buzzer interrupts Zahren and the light in front of Walter Johnson indicates that one of its players has buzzed in.
“Ginsburg,” Newman answers, and the team has taken the lead. They miss the next question —they don’t know the name of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco—but time their buzzing perfectly on two more questions to take an early lead. Whipple looks pleased—his players are clearly on their game. A trace of relief appears on the faces of Newman, Price and Shen, but no smiles. The game is far from over.
At the end of the first round, the score is Walter Johnson 120, Richard Montgomery 110 and Gonzaga 90.
From the beginning of the season, the defending champions expected to face Richard Montgomery in the “It’s Academic” final. But they came seconds away from not making it to the final—twice.
At a quarterfinal match taped in April, Walter Johnson faced Holton-Arms, the all-girls private school in Bethesda, and Washington’s Woodrow Wilson High School. From the start, Holton-Arms and Walter Johnson attacked each other, jumping in early on questions. Wilson stayed close by staying off the buzzer and letting the other two miss, and at the end of two rounds the three teams were within 40 points of each other. Price and Newman lost the air of confidence they possessed in earlier rounds. During commercial breaks, Newman wasn’t gesturing toward the audience or cracking jokes—the team was in for a fight.
When Woodrow Wilson jumped in to answer a few early questions in the last round, audience members began whispering to each other and leaning forward in the bleachers. With just a minute left, the Walter Johnson team members found themselves in last place, trailing both Holton-Arms and Wilson by just 10 points. But they buzzed in first on the next three questions, answering Panama, Plato and Aida, and escaped with the win.
The team was just glad to be done with the game and in the next round. “My heart was hurting in my chest,” Newman says.