Quick wits, fast hands the answer for youthful members of quiz team; Howard teens thrive on 'It's Academic'


Hit your buzzers if you can answer this question: How many juniors and seniors does it take to get to the Super Bowl in the Baltimore/Washington/Central Virginia "It's Academic" Tournament?


None -- if you're talking about Howard High School.

Howard's "It's Academic" team -- all sophomores -- won the Baltimore area's championship game last month, advancing to the televised quiz show's Super Bowl for the first time in at least 10 years.

They'll compete against the winners of the Washington and Central Virginia area competitions Saturday.

What makes the win most remarkable, said coach John Gilbert, is that the team is made up of students with only two years' experience at the high-pressure, cerebral contest.

Most teams have at least one junior or senior.

"It's fairly unusual to have a team that's that young," said Gilbert, who has coached the Howard team for nine years. "But the thing that's really unusual is to have a team that's that young be so successful."

Said team member Kyle Burkhalter, 14: "Nobody, including the three of us, I think, was even expecting us to get this far."

Eighty-one high school teams competed in the Baltimore-area tournament this year. Three of the nine semifinalists were from Howard County -- Centennial, Hammond and Howard high schools.

After defeating Hammond and Catoctin high schools in the semifinals, Howard's team beat Centennial 565-510 to win the championship.

That win was worth the hours of studying three times a week to prepare, the students said.

'Pretty intimidating'

"Earlier in the year, [Centennial] had scored the highest score ever, so it was pretty intimidating," said Howard team captain Patrick McKinney, 15.

"They were a pretty tough team," agreed team member Rebecca Lambert, 15. "We knew we could win if we played well."

The contest is made up of five rounds: two team rounds, a visual round, a specific category round and a grab-bag round.

The team members said they work well together in the team rounds, but that they also have areas where they shine individually.

Kyle and Rebecca are both on the county math team. Patrick has a penchant for geography. They often split subject areas among the three to become quick "experts" for contests.

But the trick, the team members said, isn't always having a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things. It's knowing when to hit the buzzer to answer.

Buzzing strategies

The first team to buzz in gets to answer first, so if a team waits until host Mac McGarry is finished reading a question, more than likely they'll be beaten every time. Team members learn to listen intently for key words and try to guess what the question might be.

"The more you do this, the more you can figure out where a question is going," Patrick said.

Knowing the subject in the category round often helps, but not all the time.

"Sometimes it'll be something that doesn't help a lot like, 'People who were born on Friday,' " Rebecca said.

The biggest help is a coach who's experienced and knowledgeable, the team members said.

Gilbert, 31, is not only dedicated, he has firsthand knowledge of the contest. He competed on Hammond High School's "It's Academic" team from 1984 to 1986.

'Excellent coach'

"He's an excellent coach. He devotes a lot of time to us," Patrick said, even when the team competed against Gilbert's alma mater in the semifinals and won in a nail-biting tie-breaker.

"He has allegiance to us," said Patrick. "He's been coaching here long enough."

Gilbert said his coaching duties are minimal with the exceptional team members this year. They're not only extremely bright, he said, they're also driven.

"They really are all old enough to set their own goals and to work toward them," Gilbert said.

The latest goal is to win the Super Bowl, which will mean beating the annual competition favorite, consistently a team from the D.C. area.

The three said they're not nervous and haven't thought about changing game plans or developing new strategies.

"We're just going to play the way we always play," Rebecca said.

Which means study hard during practices and think fast during the competition -- which airs at 7 p.m. June 24 on WJZ-TV Channel 13.

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