RCHS wins first state Scholastic Bowl championship

By Jimmie Johnson III  

The Rockbridge County High School Scholastic Bowl team came up short at the regional tournament a year ago because players excelled at math, but fell short on several other subjects. This year was different. 

RCHS Scholastic Bowl team members Will Hanstedt, Tieran McClure, Miranda Johnson and Cameron Gavaler listen to directions from Head Coach Chris McGrath at the state championship. (Photo Credit: Miranda Johnson)

“Last year, we knew nothing about geography; we weren’t particularly good at biology or military history, or philosophy or social sciences,” senior captain Miranda Johnson said. “Each one of us took up one of those and said, ‘We’re gonna get good at this before the state championship.’” 

The team was better than good: RCHS finished with a 43-0 season and its first state championship.  

The team went 3-0 at the state competition in Williamsburg to claim the title on Feb. 23. The championship is RCHS’s first team state championship in the Virginia High School League. 

“I was really happy with how we rallied and put in the work and then got the payoff at the end,” Johnson said.  

Scholastic Bowl is a competition where two teams of four competitors each answer 10-point academic questions across a range of subjects, including mathematics, history and science.  

One competition consists of 50 questions asked across three rounds. During rounds one and three, any team can answer. But 10 points are subtracted for incorrect answers. Round two consists of questions asked specifically of one team, and opposing teams can “steal” if they correctly answer the other team’s missed questions.  

The senior-heavy team included Johnson and fellow seniors Cameron Gavaler, Tieran McClure and Will Hanstedt. Senior Benjamin Newhouse and junior Aili Waller were alternates.  

Hanstedt said the state tournament “started terribly” against James Monroe High School. The team didn’t expect much trouble against James Monroe, but found themselves down by 40 points after round one.    

But during the second round, the James Monroe team missed two of its math questions. RCHS was able to “steal” the questions with correct answers to gain an additional 20 points.   

“That gave us a bit of a boost and we came into the third round and played a little bit better,” Hanstedt said.  

The team won the match by 55 points.  

Taking on the defending champs

Hanstedt said the second match was against “the people we were really concerned about”—the three-time defending state champion, Cave Spring High School.  

Cave Spring was led by senior Billy Luqiu, one of the nation’s top-50 competitors, according to the individual rankings on the 2018 National Academic Quiz Tournament website. The school was the favorite to repeat. 

The RCHS team had only heard rumors about how good Luqiu was before the match, Johnson said. She said she thought RCHS was “going to lose pretty badly.”  

She was wrong. 

The opening round went back and forth between both teams. The end of round one saw Cave Spring up by a slim 10 points. 

“That first round against Cave Spring was one of the best [Scholastic Bowl] rounds that I’ve ever seen,” said RCHS Head Coach Chris McGrath, a calculus teacher.    

Mathematics skills again gave RCHS the advantage in round two as the team out-smarted Cave Spring, whose players missed two questions. RCHS came out of the second round ahead 170-150.    

After the second round, RCHS players started to believe they could win. 

“When you’re coming in, you’re thinking about the other team and psyching yourself out,” Hanstedt said. “But when you’re actually in the match, you’re just thinking about the questions, and you don’t really care who is sitting on the other side.” 

The third round was also competitive, but RCHS “never got flustered,” said Assistant Coach Patrick Bradley, a Latin teacher.  

The 20-point deficit was too much for Cave Spring to overcome. RCHS won 235-205.   

“We were all pretty ecstatic,” Johnson said. “Will and I couldn’t stop smiling, and we kept hitting each other in happiness.” 

The victory secured the state championship. But the team still had one more match because of the round robin format of the tournament.  

Going for perfection

Even though they knew they were champions, they wanted to finish undefeated, Newhouse said.    

The third match against Colonial Heights High School was more relaxed, and senior alternate Newhouse got to play. The RCHS team won by 150 points to secure its undefeated season.   

“It’s something this group has been working toward for two years,” McGrath said. “It was so great to see everything fall into place.”   

It was especially sweet because RCHS had come so close in 2018. Two 10-point losses to Fort Defiance High School and Western Albemarle High School kept the team from reaching the state championship. 

The RCHS team’s performance at another tournament earlier this season qualified it for two national competitions this summer in Reston, Virginia, and Atlanta. The team is deciding whether to attend.   

For now, they are enjoying their state championship. 

“It was really satisfying and encouraging to see how you can try hard and then be rewarded,” Johnson said.