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Charleston Catholic heads to history bowl

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's not quite as well known as the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl, but the National History Bowl approaches this weekend in Washington, D.C., and a West Virginia team is contending for victory.

The Charleston Catholic High School Academic Team, overseen by teacher Amy Donaldson Arnold with help from Martin Jones, will compete in the bowl Friday through Sunday with students Alex MacDonald, Kelly Missett, Ben Canfield and Jonathan Settle.

The four students are this year's West Virginia history bowl champs, going head to head (literally, when you think about it) in the History Bowl national championships against 130 teams from across the country.

"It's kind of like a spelling bee, but for history," Arnold said.

The team's mission is to be smart and quick enough to press the buzzer first on questions like this:

"This entity signed the Peace of Wordingborg, and reached the height of its power after signing the Peace of Stralsund. Before being attacked by Waldemar IV, it achieved dominance through the use of cog ships, although its monopoly was eventually broken by the Dutch. Founded in the twelfth century by merchants in Hamburg and Lubeck, for 10 points name this medieval federation of North German shipping towns."

If you didn't know the answer -- the Hanseatic League -- maybe you need to use your lunch breaks to train, as the four students on the team sometimes do in Charleston Catholic's biology lab.

One day last week, Arnold fed them questions as the students held buzzers in hand, feeding themselves lunch while facing off in an intramural 60-second lightning round contest.

"OK, you guys get to choose -- Ancient Historians or Revolutionary War Battles?" Arnold said.

Revolutionary War Battles sounded more appealing, MacDonald said.

In competition question-speak, the teacher tested her team:

"What was the last major battle in the Carolinas in which the British won a tactical victory under Alexander Stewart, but the Americans gained strategic ground under Nathanial Green?"

"Camden?" Missett said.

"Camden," Settle seconded.

The Battle of Camden is correct.

But, wait, here's another question. Why spend your lunchtime doing with your brain what you have to do the whole school day long?

"I just moved here in August. I was on the team in my old school and I really liked it. So I thought it would be fun to do it here," Missett said.

"It's just really fun -- trying to figure out the questions," Settle said. "I like the good feeling I get when I get one right."

What about the bad feeling you get when you get one wrong?

"That just challenges me to learn more about it, and work harder."

MacDonald got hooked in a two-stage process.

"A friend of mine got me to join the speech team. Then, someone on the speech team got me to join quiz bowl."

Canfield, meanwhile, played on a quiz bowl team in middle school. He was attracted to Catholic's team for a different reason -- the open road.

"When I was a freshman in middle school, the high school team here was getting to go to places like Chicago, New Orleans. I just thought it'd be neat to go travel places. I'd always watched shows like 'Jeopardy' too. That kind of got me interested, too."

Founded three years ago, the bowl's mission, as described by its website, historybowl.com, is to remedy the fact that "history education has been somewhat neglected at the secondary school level in recent years."

Maybe as importantly, the bowl's aim is to make history seem less like a cold recitation of dates and historical figures. As the site explains:

"This includes an appreciation of the idea that history is not just a morass of names and dates, but a key to understanding every human endeavor, from the battlefield to the baseball field, from the political arena to the photography studio, from sacred places to the science lab."

Charleston Catholic's team first competed in the History Bowl finals in 2011, finishing "in the middle of the pack," Arnold said. They also qualified in 2012, but couldn't go because of scheduling conflicts. This year, they took the West Virginia title at a state championship held at Parkersburg High School in February and the dates for the championship worked out.

The school's Academic Team, which includes a half-dozen other students who compete in other contests, also qualified in a companion event, the National History Bee, a one-on-one contest, unlike the team contest of the History Bowl. MacDonald, Missett and Settle will compete individually in the Bee on Sunday against more than 300 other students.

Charleston Catholic doesn't recruit students for its team -- the ones who have an interest seem to find their own way to the buzzer, Arnold said. This year's squad is better on some topics than others. Arnold lays out its strengths and weaknesses:

"We get kids that are great in math, literature. We're usually very strong in those topics. History is one of strongest. Sports. Current events -- we're usually pretty good in that. Our weakest is music and art."

How do you get to be so rounded academically that you're good at so many topics?

"If you take classes in many different subjects like good, hard academic classes you learn a lot then," Missett said. "If you read a lot, watch movies, just generally stay informed ... You learn things just by opening your eyes a little bit and looking around."

As for the competition itself, the early rounds are more relaxing than stressful, Canfield said. That changes, though, as you advance.

"Once you get to the afternoon round and are in the playoffs, it kind of feels like a sport, in a way. Because you really do want to win at that point."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017


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