Black Saga regional competition

Sam Oakes, left, facing camera, and Sofia Brouse, of Hillcrest Elementary School's Team 2, celebrate a correct answer during Thursday evening's Black Saga Regional Competition at Sudbrook Middle Magnet School. The fourth-graders' team took second in their heat and could earn a wild card spot in next week's county championship competition. Hillcrest Elementary 1 team took first in its heat and will advance to the county meet Feb. 25 at Randallstown High School. (Staff photo by Sarah Pastrana / March 17, 2011)

"What place was called the capital of the African-American world?"

When the 12 students on the four teams representing Hillcrest and Westchester elementary schools heard the question, their faces lit up and several nearly jumped from their seats to answer.

Each team quickly scrawled the correct answer, "Harlem," then fidgeted as they waited for the next question during the Feb. 16 Black Saga Regional Competition that tested their knowledge of black history.

The competition at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School included two heats for 22 teams of elementary school students and two heats for 14 teams of middle school students.

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Each heat consisted of 10 rounds with a total of about 15 questions.

Hillcrest and Cedarmere each won a heat in the elementary school division and automatically advanced to the county championships Feb. 25 at Randallstown High School.

Sudbrook Magnet Middle School also won a heat to advance to the county finals. Sudbrook's team featured two Catonsville residents, teacher Jodie Virago, who coached, and eighth-grader Emma Lesnevich.

Parents and teachers often must coax students to open their books and study, but when it comes to the Black Saga Competition, students seem happy to cram.

In addition to meeting for an hour every week to study black history, coach Taylor Dungey's five students on his two Black Saga teams at Catonsville Middle School took the initiative to gather again after school, on Fridays, no less, to study more.

"It's a lot to ask of kids in middle school," said the eighth-grade teacher, noting the students have to prepare to answer any of 400 possible questions in the county and regional tournaments. "I think they like being competitive, being on stage."

The team of seventh-graders Kaniaya Rice and Aevein Mabil and sixth-grader Tim Miller was third in the second heat of the middle school division, two spots ahead of the Catonsville Middle team of seventh-grader Divine Jackson and sixth-grader Jordan Simmons.

"It's just really nervous out there. It's just really hard, but I like it," Tim said of the competition. "It's just good knowledge and helped me with other things in school also."

The Arbutus Middle team of seventh-grader Joshua Lambert, of Catonsville, and sixth-grader Matthew Chambers, of Arbutus finished sixth in the heat.

The Arbutus Middle team of eighth-graders Chioma Nwabuzo, of Catonsville, and Amani Ross, of Halethorpe, seventh-grader Kristen Cohen, of Catonsville, and sixth-grader Cerenity Chambers, of Arbutus, took seventh.

Thomas Thompson, a teacher and Black Saga coach at Arbutus Middle School, said his teams started the school year practicing twice a week with an average of a half-dozen kids taking part.

As they approached the regional competition, they increased their practices to five days a week and the kids stayed invested and had two teams at the regional competition, Thompson said.

The practice sessions certainly paid off for the Hillcrest Elementary 1 team that automatically advanced by winning its heat in the "Jeopardy" -style event.

Fifth-graders Eva White, who participated on last year's team, and Lydia Newman and fourth-grader Lydia Newman comprised the winning team. Fifth-grader Tilly Merrill served as the team's alternate.

"Some of (the questions) were really tough," Eva said. "It all pays off when you win at the competition or just when you're at the competition and you know a question."

Hillcrest won last year's county championship without missing a single question but did not participate in the state competition, where students must have the answers to 800 questions.