News-Miner opinion: When Chris Benshoof walked into a meeting of the Lathrop High School Academic Decathlon team one afternoon 17 years ago, it’s a safe bet he had no idea what the next two decades would hold for him and the team. Since 2000, the Lathrop team joined a powerhouse West Valley High School team to establish a fierce rivalry in the state’s biggest high school academic extracurricular activity. The teams have combined to win 17 of the 18 state championships in the years since, with Lathrop notching 10 wins, West Valley seven, and the Galena-based IDEA homeschool program recording one win. This year at the national competition, Lathrop’s team once again did the Interior and the state proud, notching a fourth-place finish in their division and bringing home an impressive 13 medals in eight of the competition’s 10 subject areas.
Despite the domination of the state competition by Fairbanks teams, Academic Decathlon has a relatively low profile when compared to athletics. But that’s not true everywhere. In other states such as California and Texas, private schools hire full-time instructors to coach Academic Decathlon teams, with wins at the state and national levels bringing prestige to their schools.
Here in Fairbanks, the activity is on par with other extracurricular pursuits such as robotics clubs and debate teams. The only thing that distinguishes the Academic Decathlon team from other such activities is the intense amount of study the team commits to bettering themselves in the 10 disciplines of the competition — art, music, language and literature, math, economics, science (or social science, depending on the year), Super Quiz (a focused area of study that changes from year to year), speech, interview and essay.
As a competitor, Mr. Benshoof was a solid contributor but never the team’s standout scorer. Yet Lathrop’s team changed when he arrived nonetheless. His particular genius with regard to the competition was the level of enthusiasm he brought to the team, encouraging his teammates and later competitors to engage in long periods of focused study that propelled them from contenders to champions. The Lathrop team, which had never before done better than a third-place finish at state, won the competition in 2000 and 2001, and after Mr. Benshoof graduated, he returned to help coach and later took the reins of the team. When he got a degree in education from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he returned to Lathrop to teach, and his gift for bringing out the best in Academic Decathlon competitors translated well in the classroom, earning him the title of Alaska Teacher of the Year in 2013.
Mr. Benshoof has been lucky to have exceptional competitors to work with. The products of Fairbanks’ public schools, Lathrop and West Valley squads have stacked up admirably against private schools from across the nation, and this year was no exception. Standout Grace Martin, the team’s high scorer, won an impressive five medals and placed third overall for individual competitors in the Honors category of Lathrop’s division. Ms. Martin’s seven teammates — Tailon Russell, Camellia Valencia, Abigail Boyle, Andrew Parker, Darin Cheney, Caelan Gold and Daisy Morotti — notched an additional eight. What’s more, three individual competitors from West Valley and Galena IDEA who made the trip to nationals also medaled, making it a strong showing all around for the Last Frontier.
In the past two decades, local Academic Decathlon teams, including smaller schools Monroe Catholic High School and Hutchison High School, have well defended the Interior’s status as the home of Alaska’s academic heavyweights. The parade of Academic Decathlon titles speaks to that dominance; long may it continue.