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THREE-PEAT'S OH SO SWEET EL CAMINO TEAM WINS ACADEMIC DECATHLON.

Byline: Lisa M. Sodders Staff Writer

BOISE, Idaho - In a record-breaking, nerve-racking finish Saturday, Woodland Hills' El Camino Real High School squeaked past a rival Arizona team to win the 23rd annual U.S. Academic Decathlon.

About 270 points out of a possible 60,000 total separated the two teams and gave El Camino its third national championship, making it the only California team to claim three national titles.

``This is a hell of a birthday present,'' exclaimed team member Cassidy Ellis of West Hills, who turned 18 on Saturday.

``It's unlike anything I've ever experienced before,'' said an exuberant Adam Singer, 17, of Reseda, who won five individual medals, one of them gold, and two scholarships. ``It's the biggest experience of my life so far.''

El Camino's team scored a total of 50,656.8 points, edging past Mountain View High School of Mesa, Ariz.

``We had a worthy opponent,'' said Melinda Owen, one of El Camino's three coaches. ``Arizona was an incredibly strong, kind team.''

In addition to Ellis and Singer, the winning team consists of Gary Fox, 17, of Woodland Hills; Jonathan Lin, 17, of West Hills; Patrick Liu, 17, of Woodland Hills; Eric Rasyidi, 17, of Woodland Hills; Chris Taylor, 18, of West Hills; and Adrian Wittenberg, 18, of West Hills.

The other two coaches are Mark Johnson and Rebecca Gessert.

``It was so scary until the end; we just really didn't know,'' said Wittenberg's grandmother, Dolores Deutsch, 75, of Chatsworth. ``They're such wonderful young people - marvelous.''

Saturday's awards banquet at the downtown Boise Centre on the Grove marked the end of a competition that included two days of multiple-choice testing in seven different events, speeches, essay-writing and interviews. The El Camino team was competing against more than 360 other students from 39 U.S. states and a team from British Columbia.

El Camino's 2004 national title follows national wins in 1998 and 2001. Los Angeles Unified School District's Taft High School, also in Woodland Hills, and Marshall High School have both won two national titles each, as have Moorpark High School and Palo Alto High School, giving California 11 out of the 23 national titles.

Initially Saturday, it looked as though the El Camino team might finish behind Arizona, which won 24 individual medals to El Camino's 21, and won first place in the Super Quiz category.

The El Camino team members had played paintball earlier in the day to work off the anxiousness, but as the evening wore on - and Arizona's medal count increased - they grew somber, cheering their teammates when they won medals, but letting their elaborate desserts melt into puddles on their plates. Ellis spent much of the time resting her head on the table.

``It's never good when your coaches are all looking down,'' observed Lin as the trio of coaches kept tally.

But when Arizona was announced as the second-place winner for Division I - the large schools - the El Camino students erupted into shrieks of joy, knowing they had won first place for their division.

Wittenberg, in a pink ball gown, jumped up on a chair and was swept off of it by her brother, Alan, 21, who competed on the 2001 national championship team.

The victory is particularly sweet because the El Camino team only has eight members. Although teams can compete with as few as six members, they typically have nine: three ``A'' students, with GPAs of 3.75 to 4.00; three ``B'' students, with GPAs of 3.00 to 3.74; and three ``C'' students with GPAs of 2.99 and below. Since the final scores are calculated by taking the two highest scores of each group, having only two ``B'' students, as the El Camino team did, gave the team a smaller margin for error.

Taylor, a ``C'' student who said he never considered himself much of a scholar, was stunned to win five individual medals, three of them gold.

``Deca has turned my life around,'' he said, flabbergasted.

Also honored Saturday evening was Reseda High School team member Heather Bandy. Bandy, 15, of West Hills was born blind and she was recognized for overcoming obstacles.

Team members also finally revealed the meaning of the mysterious motto written in Aramaic on the back of their black satin team jackets: ``The only difference between genius and insanity is 12 inches,'' a play on Thomas Edison's expression, which held that the difference was a work ethic, Rasyidi said.

``We keep ourselves focused by hitting ourselves with rulers,'' he said.

The team returns today at 5:17 p.m. on United Flight 1141 at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

Lisa Sodders, (818) 713-3663

lisa.sodders(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) El Camino Real High School students Adam Singer, from right, Cassidy Ellis and Gary Fox react to the news of their victory Saturday. ``It's unlike anything I've ever experienced before,'' Singer said after the win. It was El Camino's third, making it the only California team to claim three national titles.

(2) El Camino Real High School student Adrian Wittenberg celebrates her team's win Saturday in the Academic Decathlon.

Matt Ciley/Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 18, 2004
Words:860
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