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Mason Academic Team Wins Small School National Championship

The George Mason High School Academic Team won the small school championship this weekend at the National Academic Quiz Tournaments High School National Championship Tournament. But for Jamie Scharff, the group’s advisor and a social studies teacher at Mason, the greater accomplishment is taking 21st place in the greater national tournament.

The George Mason High School Academic Team won the small school championship this weekend at the National Academic Quiz Tournaments High School National Championship Tournament. But for Jamie Scharff, the group’s advisor and a social studies teacher at Mason, the greater accomplishment is taking 21st place in the greater national tournament.

The six-senior team – led by Captain Asher Morse, Anuraag Sensharma, Ross Wilson and Jakob Hand, with Crawford Taylor and Matt Baker as substitutes – went down to Atlanta over Memorial Day weekend to compete in the annual tournament.

The Mason squad went up against 223 teams in the contest, which they qualified for by finishing second at the NAQT DR YAKUB Invitational last December at the University of Maryland. But that was just one accomplishment for the team in a long season of success – winning the Virginia High School League state championship in February and finishing an undefeated season, 26-0.

Of the 22 small schools that took part in the larger national tournament, 13 made the small school playoffs. Schools with fewer than 500 students in grades 10-12 that do not have selective admission policies are considered small schools by the NAQT, and teams that have at least a 4-6 record in the preliminary rounds can qualify for the small school playoffs. Last year, the team finished the preliminaries at 5-5, and went on to finish sixth in the playoffs.

“They recognize that small public schools are at a bit of a competitive disadvantage,” Scharff said, noting that the schools went up against many magnet schools, private schools and large public schools. Despite the disadvantage, the team’s performance this season led quiz bowl followers to rank the team anywhere between 53rd and 80th in the nation. The only other small school team to rank higher was the Illinois state small school champions. The Mason squad “beat them pretty handily” in the small school tournament, Scharff said.

In the preliminary rounds, teams were matched based on their record. Mason delivered a few devastating losses to some of the larger schools, like defeating the Michigan and Kentucky state champions, and secured its spot in the double-elimination national playoffs with a 7-3 preliminary score.

The team left the competition in a round along with 12 other teams, leaving 20 more to compete, and thus were given a 21st-place finish.

“As far as we got in the playoffs was about as far as any small school has ever gone,” Scharff said.

According to Scharff, the team even celebrated in its losses, as they were defeated by Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies in Richmond, last year’s national champions, and LASA High School in Austin, Texas, a team picked as a favorite to win, by what Scharff called “reasonable margins.”

They were honored with a trophy for having finished as one of the top 32 teams.

Though Prom has passed, and the school year is wrapping up for Mason students, Scharff said that his team has still been working hard for this championship, with regular and impromptu practices after school and during Mason block, as well as over the weekends at one another’s homes.

“Motivation is not a problem at all with that group,” Scharff said. “In fact I think that the reason they’ve been so successful is because they’ve enjoyed it so much.”

The players, who took part in the tournament last year, were returning not only with some knowledge and experience of how the national tournament works, but also with a desire to perform better than the previous year.

“They were kind of disappointed after last year,” Scharff said. “I thought they did pretty well, but they felt like they could have done a bit better.”

Though the team didn’t win the larger national tournament, a number of upsets and a few close games with some of the larger schools on the circuit meant the team brought home not only a three-foot-tall trophy, but a sense of pride in the way they played.

“They knew going into this that this was going to bet he last competition for the team, so it was really gratifying that they could go out doing so incredibly well, and playing their best,” Scharff said. “The kids felt good, because they said ‘we played about as well as we can play.’ It’s the strongest team I’ve ever had.”

The national tournament marks the end of the season for the Mason team, who will move on to college in the fall – Morse to Sarah Lawrence, Sensharma and Baker to William and Mary, Wilson to George Mason University, Hand to St. Lawrence College, and Taylor to Claremont McKenna.

Scharff is now rebuilding his team, employing the same strategy that he used in forming last year’s team: Make it fun.

“The kids realize that when they come here, it is a haven for kids who enjoy learning things,” Scharff said. He added that there are a few students who have shown interest in joining the team who have been attending practices to improve their skills, but said that he will let student interest dictate the frequency of practice and the course of the team.

“I don’t set out to win championships,” Scharff said. “We try to enjoy the activity, and if that leads to the byproduct of being successful, then all the better.”

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