The populace at Granada Hills Charter High School doesn’t necessarily consider winning the state Academic Decathlon as a birthright. But they do consider it a right of passage.
The feeling of winning isn’t bad, either.
The Highlanders enjoyed that feeling again by winning Division I of the 40th annual California Academic Decathlon — held in Sacramento on March 22-23 — totaling 59,346.40 out of a possible 60,000 points. That figure surpassed the total of runner-up and last year’s winner El Camino Real Charter High School, which scored 58,730.20 points.
Rounding out the top five Division I finishers were high schools Grant, Rancho Cucamonga and Calabasas.
Granada Hills’ victory was punctuated by the effort of Dilawar Khan, who was the highest overall individual scorer with 9,612 points. Khan competed in the Honors Division, the top competitive level for students.
Other Granada Hills competitors included (alphabetically) Connie Chen, Tamara Cruz, Nicole Dersahakian, Lelija Kazlauskas, Ben LaFreniere, Kenny Ly, Jared Matsubayashi and Ezhan Mirza, plus alternates Dwaipayan Chanda, Isabel Mercado, and Jasdeep Sidhu.
It was the seventh state title for Granada Hills since 2011. The Highlanders will try and capture a seventh national title in Minneapolis the weekend of April 26-28.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure that you must have felt about being on the Academic Decathlon team,” said Granada Hills Executive Director Brian Bauer during a celebration for the students, their parents, and coaches on campus Monday, March 25. “And I know what that’s like, to come into a program that has expectations like that. In some ways it’s motivating and inspiring. In other ways it can be a huge burden.
“I want to make sure we pay tribute to you because it’s really the first title that’s the most important. And it’s the first title for you. It’s said that pressure is a privilege; some people rise to it where others do not. Your victory really shows you embraced the pressure and made it a privilege.”
No competitor embraced the challenge better than Khan, 17, a senior, who collected 11 medals at the competition.
When asked if he was surprised by his effort, Kahn replied, “I’d say so. But more than the pride we felt in our own individual victories was seeing…that our efforts weren’t just for ourselves but for each other.”
Indeed, even alternates like Mercado — who did the same amount of preparatory work as the lead competitors and was ready to step in if someone was unable to take part — could feel being part of the achievement.
“Coming up to the the competition, we were putting in a lot of hours and hard work. And there was definitely pressure for us to achieve,” said Mercado, 17, a junior.
“Even though I did not compete I was there to support everyone else in their competitions. I’m so proud of my teammates for achieving what they achieved. It was such an amazing experience.”
Lead coach Alina Lee noted the rivalry with fellow independent charter school El Camino Real, and wanting to take the title back from the Conquistadors.
“That sentiment drove the team in some ways. There’s always that healthy competition,” Lee said. “But at the end of the day our goal was ‘work your hardest, do your best,’ so at the end of it we have no regrets because — regardless of the results — it’s about the work they put in.”
This year’s topic was the 1960s decade, with categories ranging from science and economics to arts and music.
“It was a really interesting topic to learn about,” said Kazlauskas, 17, a senior who won six medals. “I’d always heard the ‘60s were a tumultuous decade. We learned a lot about the Viet Nam war, and the presidencies that were happening. What I personally liked was the music we learned about. I’m a fan of the Beatles — they were a big topic — but also learned what classical music was doing, how jazz was evolving.
“It was really interesting to see how cool it was. The 60’s was a pretty awesome decade.”
The students will get a week’s break before beginning preparations for the national contest.
Khan said the team will be ready.
“I think California is one of the toughest competitions in the nation. It’s something that drove us to work as hard as we could,” he said. “Now, knowing for the past 18 years that California teams have been winning, it’s an incredible privilege to be representing such a state. That’s going to be a huge motivation going into the national, and having that long legacy on our shoulders.”