Five southwest Baltimore County schools prepare for state-wide Black Saga Competition on March 17

"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.

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.

"The questions are double what it is for the county, and we just hadn't prepared," second-year coach Lisa Black said. "We are planning on going to states this year."

A second team from Hillcrest and two others from Westchester Elementary School could join them in the county competition

Hillcrest 2, with fourth-graders Sofia Brouse and Sam Oakes and fifth-graders Grace Dillingham, who participated last year, and alternate Cally McClure, finished second.

The Westchester team of was third and the Westchester team was fourth in the same heat.

One of those schools could earn one of the four wild card slots in the elementary school division to compete in the county championship.

The two Edmondson Heights Elementary School teams finished third and fourth in the final heat and may get a wild card berth.

Edmondson Heights 2 of fourth-graders Agape Davis, Xela Wooten and Kellie Williams tied for second then lost a tie-breaker round with Cedarmere Elementary School 2 to fall to third place.

"It was very challenging, but it was pretty cool because it's my first time being in a competition," Agape said. "What I really like is how I'm learning more black history because I used to not know much about black history."

Edmondson Heights 1 of fifth-graders Joshua Dorsey, Demetrius Jones and Deontae' Frederick was fourth.

On Friday, the competition organizers will announce which teams will claim the seven wild card slots available in the middle school division to advance to the county finals.

The field at the county championship will be rounded out by participants from the county's two other regional competitions,

The state competition on March 19 at Towson University is open to all the teams that participated in the regional tournament at Sudbrook Middle.

Coaches from the Catonsville schools said their teams will likely participate.

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