By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
It was like a tag-team "Jeopardy!" marathon. For dozens of four-member teams with buzzers at their fingertips and answers on the tips of their tongues, the only thing standing between them and victory were four opponents across the stage.
Before a packed Havre High School auditorium Thursday evening and Friday afternoon, 36 teams of students participated in what has become a tradition over the last decade. Students frantically buzzed in for a chance to answer questions carefully culled by HHS teacher Mary Wagner - everything from history to industrial arts.
Students identified the artists responsible for famous paintings and novels, named geological eras and recited mathematical formulas. They sang the lines to popular and once-popular songs, fielded questions about local and national sports teams, and recalled bits of local lore and Montana trivia.
In the preliminary round Thursday, the first teams to answer five questions correctly advanced to Friday's competition, where they then fought to be the first to answer eight questions right in each round. The terms were brutal: one loss meant elimination, and no second chances.
Wagner, the organizer of the Academic Challenge, kept tenuous control over keyed-up teams competing in front of a rambunctious audience.
Why do students get so wound up over a trivia game?
"Bragging rights," said Wagner, who began the competition years ago.
"I think kids generally are competitive by nature, and it doesn't really matter if it's sports, theater, music, academics - kids want to win," she said.
After dozens of matches covering hundreds of questions over two days, members of the winning team would receive the championship plaque, and something more, too.
"It's just for pride, mostly," said senior Chris Peterson on Friday afternoon.
The team of seniors John Barts, Peterson, Dane MacRae, and Jeff Sprinkle had just lost by the slimmest of margins to a team led by senior Matt Boucher. Boucher's team was defeated later on.
"It's a good event," Barts said. "It rewards them for being smart, not athletic. It's kind of a change."
"It's kind of neat to see the kids get fired up about something intellectual," said HHS choir director Frank Payn, who submitted a question asking the name of the traditional Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca - the hajj. Maybe it's the competition that gets them excited, he added.
"I just think it's a neat variety of questions," said HHS history teacher Jim Magera, whose contributions to the question pool included, "When was Havre created?" and "Who was Havre's first millionaire?"
By Friday afternoon, 32 teams had been eliminated, and it was time for the academic equivalent of the Final Four.
Junior Gary Wagner's team - Wagner, Tyson Parman, Marc Mariani and Kyle Baltrusch - was fresh off its victory over senior Sam Seidel's team and was headed into the semifinals.
"Once you get to the semifinals, I think they're all pretty tough," Parman said.
"We need the 'sing the next line' questions," Gary Wagner said, referring to one of the popular categories introduced by HHS teacher Marie Deegan last year.
"That's our strength," Parman said.
Parman and Wagner said that in a successful team, the members are friends who know each other's strengths. That way they can buzz in if they hear a question one of their teammates is likely to know. The strategy, Wagner said, is to buzz in first and consult teammates for the answer before time runs out.
An hour later it came down to the championship round, with Wagner's team facing the team of seniors Joel Benson and Katie'B Jarvis, sophomore Valley Lopez and junior Elizabeth Widdekind.
It might have been an omen when early on they were told to sing the next line of "I'm dreaming ... " Wagner's team buzzed in and crooned into the microphone, "Of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know" to complete the line and get their first point of the game.
Wagner's team came back from an 8-12 deficit to win 15-13 after correctly answering a question that began, "Name the big brown truck carrying ..."
After buzzing in and correctly answering "UPS," before the question was even finished, Wagner's team jumped to its feet and began to celebrate.
"We felt down but we knew we had to stay together to come back," Wagner said after posing for pictures with his team.
Widdekind was crestfallen.
"I have no idea what happened, honestly," she said, adding that the event was "just for fun."
"I just honestly think that we were the ultimate comeback," Benson said. "We didn't expect to be past the first round."