Waukesha West Academic Decathlon team looks to make comeback

Chris Kuhagen
Waukesha West senior Nikhita Chawla, who has been part of the Waukesha West academic decathlon team for three years, studies for the science portion of the academic decathlon test on Monday at the school.
Published on: 3/13/2014

Nikhita Chawla knows what awaits the Waukesha West Academic Decathlon team over the next two days.

"It's a really stressful week," said Chawla, a three-year veteran of the team, "because our entire season is building up to this moment."

For Chawla and her teammates on the powerful Waukesha West Academic Decathlon team, that moment is now as they look to reclaim the state title they lost last year when they finished second to New Berlin Eisenhower at state.

The state competition begins Thursday and continues Friday at the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells.

Last year's runnerup finish was the first time in 12 years West left without the top trophy.

Head coach Amy Unti-Runnells said taking second was a good reminder that the team is not untouchable.

"It really built this team this year in the sense that they knew that you can truck along first place for a long time, but anything can happen," Unti-Runnells said.

While senior Ryan Wilber wasn't with the team last year, he said "it's definitely a big motivator to get (the first-place award) back."

If West accomplishes this feat, it will do it with essentially a brand-new team. Only Chawla and Joey Wurm returned in 2013-14 after seven of the nine team members graduated.

The team also welcomed its fourth head coach in four years with the addition of Unti-Runnells, an English teacher at West. Unti-Runnells was part of the team last year as an assistant coach under Vince Ricco.

In an interesting twist, her assistant coach this year is Eisenhower's former head coach Erik Fountain, who left New Berlin for the Waukesha School District this year.

New identity

"I think with all the change that we've been dealing with, I think this year our team sees it, yes there's a legacy, but we're doing it for this year's team," Chawla said. "We're different. We're new, so we want to win for our team and not necessarily the past."

Unti-Runnells is making sure the rest of the students understand that, too.

"They're not so much trying to repeat what's happened in the past or redo what was done, but make names for themselves" Unti-Runnells said.

As a starting foundation, it was great to have Chawla, who boasts a 4.38 grade-point average, back for her senior year.

But to build the strong tradition that West has had over the last decade-plus — national academic decathlon banners welcome visitors as they enter the school and its awards cabinet is running out of space — the team needs more than just straight-A students.

The academic decathlon team is broken into three divisions of students, Honors (3.75-4.00 GPA), Scholastic (3.00-3.74 GPA) and Varsity (0.00-2.99 GPA). The top two individual scores from each team in all three divisions are totaled into a team's overall score.

The decathlon features written tests in art, economics, language and literature, mathematics, music, science and social science. In addition to essay writing, decathletes will give a prepared and impromptu speech and an interview in front of two judges, and participate in the Super Quiz Relay at state.

"It will be interesting to see how they do," Unti-Runnells said. "They're not the most boisterous of groups, so some days you'll talk to them or see them studying and think they're really set and confident, and other days you don't see the same in them. Erik and I talk a lot about how the day of the competition will be the day that we know."

Getting involved

The team has eight competing members but also five mentors (students who help the team in practices and could be in line next year to make the squad). Brandon Phouybanhdyt, a junior and a scholastic division member, is an example of this.

"I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none," Phouybanhdyt said.

Being a master isn't what the decathlon is about — at least not right away.

That's evident with the team's two Varsity members.

Wurm, a two-year Varsity member, said before joining the team his grades weren't "up to par." But he said the team has taught him better study habits, how to budget his time. He thinks this will help him get into the University of Minnesota.

"Academic Decathlon is one of the main things I have going for me," he said.

Wilber, who has seen his grade-point average increase as a member of the team this year, said he got involved after Wurm convinced him to join. He said his classroom work has seen "a positive change."

"I was interested, but I turned it down every year saying 'oh I'll probably not be good enough for this," Wilber said. "I went ahead and said 'Hey, I need something to do.'"

Chawla, a member of the Honors division sitting next to him, chimed in: "Oh, you got a lot of something to do."

That's because the team meets every day during the school day as well as two nights a week throughout the school year and has increased the hours spent practicing as competition season ramped up.

After a local competition in the fall, West was first in its regional in January to qualify for state.

Its score was the state's best, just ahead of Wilmot Union, a school Chawla and the rest of the team say is this year's biggest threat to adding to their first-place collection.

Unti-Runnells said it's been the Wilmot coach's goal over the last number of years to beat West at state.

Eyeing nationals

The state winner will earn an automatic berth to the national meet in Hawaii in April. If that's West, it would mark the 13th straight year the Wolverines compete for a national title. Last year was the first year the top two teams at state qualified for nationals.

Although not in the same division as Eisenhower at nationals last year, Wurm said it was "self-satisfying" to accumulate more points than Ike after being defeated by the Lions a month earlier.

But this year, it's first place or bust at state for West.

Wilber explained, "We've decided that, if worst comes to worst and we take second, we won't go to nationals, because of the cost, and we would feel we wouldn't be properly representing Wisconsin."

That's why Chawla knows this is the moment for her and his teammates to shine.

"Academic Decathlon is like a marathon," she said. "You have to pace yourself, and this last week is the most intense. So now is the time."