How many wins does a team need before it becomes a dynasty?
Sportswriters regularly spill ink over the question, but a similar discussion may be in order for a team of science stars at Helena High, who recently continued a tradition of dominance at the regional Science Bowl competition.
The team from Helena High — the “geek squad,” as coach Jerry McCarthy calls them — has won five of the past six years and will again fly expenses-paid to Washington, D.C., to compete in the National Science Bowl.
Science Bowl is a trivia tournament similar to Jeopardy, except “all questions are of category science,” student Mark Sargent said. The style of play is fast-paced, with teams buzzing in to answer before the entire question has been read. Winners are often determined in the final seconds of each game.
Team member Rooster Pennington described the scene like this: “There’s 10 seconds left, and we’re four points behind and you know your bpm (beats per minute) is hitting 300.”
Though Science Bowl is a game of split seconds, the questions aren’t always easy to parse out. Teams are asked to define organic compounds, find the zeros of quadratic equations and perform calculus functions on the fly.
The tournament demands an art of educated guessing, according to student Bridger Howell, as well as an ability to recall knowledge from “way back when.”
McCarthy said this year’s team — some of whom have been competing since they were freshmen — benefits from a symbiotic relationship and rounded scientific knowledge base.
“This is the best group I’ve ever had, as far as spreading it around. These guys really work off of each other quite well,” he said.
McCarthy’s students also benefit from a lot of practice. They run through sample questions every day, beginning early in the fall.
“Mr. McCarthy sits up there and reads questions for the entire lunch period,” Pennington said.
The students said practicing prepares them well for the competition. They develop teamwork, pick up some trivia knowledge (the team is purchasing new questions after having memorized many of them) and adopt the buzzer-beating mentality.
“At some point it’s just the game we play at lunch,” Sargent said.
Helena High will be one of 60 teams in Washington next month, where Sargent said the competition is very stiff.
The trip will be the last for Sargent and fellow seniors Howell and Joe Whitney, while Pennington and Dominic Bair have more time left at HHS.
It will also be the last for McCarthy, who is retiring after 24 years at the school and several years of eating lunch alongside his students in preparation for the next science competition.
“My knowledge base has benefited,” he said. “These guys definitely know more in calculus than I know.”
“I think it’s testimony to the type of education these guys are getting at Helena High and Helena, period,” he added.
“This is definitely something I will miss.”