George Mason High School’s scholastic bowl team earned second place in the Virginia High School League state tournament last Saturday at the College of William and Mary. The trophy is one of 11 the Mustangs have brought home from the state contest in the past 13 years in this knowledge-based quiz competition, but the path to victory wasn’t clear at the start of the season.
The Mason team earned its fourth-straight state title last season, and was riding a multi-year undefeated streak in VHSL competition – one held since November 2011. But the 2012-13 season was the end of an era for the Mustangs. The team left behind an established legacy of dominance in Group A when the VHSL reorganized its team groupings from three to six. Mason was classified in the second-smallest category, Group 2A, along with Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, a magnet school in Richmond whose team had secured five VHSL state titles in the larger Group AAA since 2000. Additionally, the Mason team had graduated some formidable seniors at the end of that season – including one who George Mason teacher and team coach Jamie Scharff considers one of the strongest players the school has seen.
“The students were focused on trying to improve because the game is more fun the more we know,” Scharff said. “At the beginning of the year, we had no idea if we’d even be in the top two or three teams in our own district, much less in the state.”
The team advanced its undefeated streak throughout the regular season, besting district foes by wide margins and then winning the Conference 35 championship. The wins were many, but Scharff stresses that love of the game is the focus for his players, and that enjoyment is a crucial component of the team’s success.
“There isn’t any defense in quiz bowl, so it’s just a matter of getting as good as we can – which we always try to do because that’s the fun part, is learning new things and getting better,” Scharff said. “Then things work out however they do in the competition, depending on whether we end up knowing more than our opponents do. This turned out to be true for every team we faced except one.”
Maggie Walker ended the Mustangs’ loss-free run, dealing them a 280-140 defeat in the 2A East Region tournament and bumping Mason to second place.
“The team was very excited to take second in that tournament and earn a trip back to the state tournament, as that goal seemed pretty difficult at the start of the year,” Scharff said.
The Group 2A state tournament set up a rematch for the two teams, as their top finishes in the regional contest moved them into the state-level competition.
Mason opened the round-robin style tournament by beating Grundy High School, the 2A West champs, 225-135, then defeated the 2A West runners-up from Richlands High School 275-120. By the time Mason faced Maggie Walker in round three, both teams were undefeated in the tournament and thus the Mustangs were guaranteed at least a runner-up spot in the contest.
“Any thoughts we might have had of an upset disappeared pretty quickly as Maggie Walker cruised to a 90-20 lead in the first round,” Scharff said.
While Mason had given Maggie Walker its toughest fight in the regional tournament, the Mustangs fell 315-90 in the state tournament.
“None of us felt particularly bad about it as we knew the better team won,” Scharff said. “It is far more painful to lose on the last question, as we have done twice in state tournament finals (2004 and 2006) to finish second. In this case, we were happy to know we finished by winning all the games we really had a chance to win.”
The team at the state tournament was led by seniors Elinore McLain, Alex Warren, and Matt Earman, with juniors Jarman Taylor, Ben Cohen, and Arman Murphy contributing as well.
Scharff will be graduating three of his four starters at the end of this school year, and hopes to encourage new players to join the scholastic bowl team, especially underclassmen.
“It’s hard to know how next year’s team will be. That will depend on how much practice they are willing to put in.” Scharff said. “It’s hard to think about next year right now, as I’m still enjoying this year’s version so much.”