Casa Grande's Academic Decathlon dynasty keeps rolling
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Rick Pillsbury's classroom at Casa Grande High School looks much like a shrine to a successful athletic program. Trophies line the counters three deep in places and walls are covered with photos of smiling students laden with medals.
Upon closer examination, the trophies aren't for athletic victories but feats of the mind.
The highly decorated Casa Grande Academic Decathlon team, under the tutelage of Pillsbury and first-year coach Andrew Aja, will again head to the state competition March 14-17 in Sacramento. It is a journey that has become almost routine because the Gauchos have represented Sonoma County as the top "AcDec" team for 29-straight years.
But each year, the Gauchos must start again -- building a team of about 30 students who fall into one of three academic categories: A students, B students and C students. Students must be willing to spend 2.5 hours a week throughout the school year learning a single subject inside and out.
"Often times, there are very bright people who are not motivated by grades," said Pillsbury, the veteran Casa Grande teacher who has led the Gauchos decathlon team for 29 years. "This sort of thing appeals to them and they get turned on."
From the 31 students who were on this year's team, only nine can advance to the finals to represent Casa. That elite squad is formed based solely on their regional competition scores. The top three A students advance, as well as the top three B and top three C students.
"Our nine highest scorers become our team for state," Pillsbury said. "It's all about performance. There is no brown nosing."
The only member of Casa's team who represented the Gauchos last year in the state competition is team captain Jun Young Park, a C student.
"It helped a lot with my self-confidence last year," Park said. "And it's helping it this year, too."
The theme of the contest this year is Russia, meaning teams must immerse themselves in Russian facts across 10 different disciplines, including the arts, music, science, history and literature. Students have been studying a massive collection of reading packets since last summer.
They also must craft an essay, sit for a personal interview and give a speech.
At Monday night's practice, Pillsbury manned the slide projector while lecturing about color, medium and historical context of various pieces of Russian art. Aja quizzed students about Russian political history during the Cold War.
The way the coaches structure the weekly study sessions that run through the entire school year is rife with friendly competition. In one drill, students sit atop their desks and have to drop into their chairs when they miss a question.
"It is a good motivator to do the reading," senior Max Granger said. "You can't just sit in the back, you have to know the right answers."
When, at Monday night's practice, senior Erica Yee nailed the final question about modernist artist Marc Chagall, she was treated to whoops and fist bumps like one would normally see on the soccer pitch or basketball court.
"It's different; it's something that not a lot of people can say they can do," senior Grace Sheehan said. "Not a lot of us are the most athletic people. I think it can offer that glory that, say, the football players get. It's kind of cool."
Team members, who are encouraged to wear their medals to school on the first day back after competitions, are congratulated by fellow Gauchos, Pillsbury said.
"Because they have had success for such a long time, it is part of the Casa culture," Pillsbury said. "It's not like they are branded a nerd. They are truly applauded by the
While Casa Grande has been the top decathlon team in Sonoma County for 29 years, its success is not just at the local level. When the regional competition that leads up to the state contest was expanded to include Sonoma, Solano, Yolo and Napa counties, Casa Grande started winning there, too.
"Casa Grande is just rock solid," said Ken Scarberry, executive director of the California Academic Decathlon. "Casa Grande's scores are incredibly high compared to other teams in this general area."
At the regional competition spread out over two weekends in January and this month, the Gauchos outscored nine other teams to win the regional four-county crown. It marked the third straight year the Casa squad won that competition.
Casa Grande's team earned 47,648 out of a maximum of 65,400 points, 13th best in the state. Granada Hills, a 4,130-student charter school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, earned the most points in regional competition with 56,804.
Among the schools with the top 13 point totals, only Oakdale High School in Stanislaus County and University High in Fresno had fewer students than Casa Grande.
A rejiggering of the state competition in recent years means teams face other squads with similar regional point totals, regardless of their size.
Before that, the schools competed against campuses with similar enrollments. In that format, Casa brought home eight state titles.
But Pillsbury said the 2013 group has the goods to score well next month in Sacramento.
"I would stick them up against any team we've had," he said.
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