October 22, 2005

That smarts
Their opponents have felt the sting of defeat delivered by these wits of wonder --
meet the Valencia Community College Brain Bowl Squad.

Linda Shrieves | Sentinel Staff Writer

The 10 students hunch over the tables, swigging sodas, munching on sandwiches and a never-ending supply of cookies, their hands on the buzzers.

For three hours, they answer mind-numbing questions in rapid-fire succession. They spit out the answers as quickly as their coach reads the questions. The topics cover the far corners of academia: from physics to calculus to the Shinto gods of Japan and the works of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

For those who never have witnessed a college quiz-bowl team in action, the game resembles Jeopardy! to the 10th power.
But the Valencia Community College Brain Bowl Squad -- a team that has won three national championships at the community-college level and knocked off squads from the University of Michigan and Stanford University -- may have one Achilles' heel: sports.

"We know who won the Nobel prizes" last week, says team member Mick Kelly, 22, "but no one can tell you who won the Super Bowl last year."
Alas, in the world of college quiz bowls, even the giant-slayers have a weakness.

Not for cerebrum sissies
Originally begun as a USO activity during World War II, quiz bowls moved to colleges in the 1950s. At Valencia, the popularity of Brain Bowl (the name bestowed on the contest by Florida's community colleges) derives directly from the electric personality of its coach, Chris Borglum, 37. Although the team began in 1982, Borglum brought a new intensity to the practices, teasing students, urging them to become more aggressive and even brainier.
This season, he's leaning on third-year player Mark Prather, 21, to study a box of classical-music CDs. He's pushing newcomer Shaun Wright, 22, to learn the basics of Greek and Roman mythology. And he needs someone, anyone, to specialize in science, to answer the infernal questions about things such as endoplasmic reticulum and Boyle's law.

"You want the guy who's sitting in the back of the classroom, staring at the ceiling and doesn't seem to be paying attention to what you're saying," says Borglum, who teaches English literature at Valencia. "But all of a sudden, he'll pop up and answer some obscure question out of the blue. That's the guy you want for Brain Bowl."

The key to winning is creating a team of specialists. So Borglum and fellow coaches Boris Nguyen and Lois McNamara comb the campus of 30,000 students for a handful who are willing to memorize reams of information about science, math, literature, geography, theater, opera. It's also handy to know a little popular culture and as much as possible about The Simpsons.

What Borglum covets is the elusive "alpha dog" -- a confident, competitive player who can absorb the high-minded minutiae and become brash enough to buzz in on the first few words of a clue.

This year, Borglum is pushing Sean Platzer to become an alpha dog. Platzer, a second-year player, works at Publix by night, studies at Valencia by day and professes to have no social life. But the 19-year-old has an astonishing mastery of world history, classical music, poetry, religion and almost any war ever fought.

Last month, when new students Kelly, Gabriel Morales, 18, and Carrie Nieroda-Kraus, 19, walked into a practice session, they were startled by the scene playing out. While Borglum spat out questions, veterans such as Platzer; Scott McMillan, 21; and Virginia Clemmons, a returning student who slam-dunks most theater and literature questions, buzzed in before Borglum had completed the first sentence of a five-sentence question.
"I'm used to questions that are on a par with Jeopardy!," Kelly says. The Valencia team uses "Yale-type questions."

Boy bands?! Buzz this
As a student at the University of Florida, Borglum had played college-quiz bowls. So it was only natural that in 1993, when he became a Valencia instructor, he signed on to help coach the college's Brain Bowl team. He maintained a competitive edge, appearing on Jeopardy! in 1996.

Borglum quickly began building a dynasty, setting up six hours of practice a week -- unheard of at the community-college level. He urged students to check out anthologies, histories and CliffsNotes from his library of bargain-bin books. They memorized lists, the plot lines of hundreds of books, and the basic tenets of worldwide religions.

By 2002, other teams were starting to notice. That year, when Valencia's members went to North Carolina to compete in a national tournament, they faced the usual jeers about community-college teams. Before a match, a member of Cornell's squad asked where the Valencia team was from. "Orlando," was the reply. "Isn't that where they have the factory that makes the boy bands?" she sneered. The Valencia team, led by an incensed Amy Harvey, beat Cornell, 215-165.

But the team's greatest upset came in 2003, when Valencia defeated an undergraduate team from the University of Michigan, which has ruled college bowl for decades. "We were the giant killers," says ex-team member and alpha dog Jim Baker, now a senior at the University of South Florida.
Geeks, and proud of it.

Brain Bowl has always attracted a certain kind of student. The kind who sports Star Wars T-shirts, calculator watches and sneakers with Velcro straps. All the classic geek markers.Borglum doesn't try to change that. "What I bring to this," he says, "is that I can make them love the game like I do. This game, let's face it, is an odd pursuit. Normal people do not play this game."

What sets Valencia's team apart, members say, is that many of them look normal. Wright, with long blond hair and a goatee, resembles a surfer. Kelly wears double-layered polo shirts and khaki shorts and has spiked hair. And Nieroda-Kraus could have stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine. "We look like we blend in at the mall," says Kelly. Though many outsiders see them as nerds, Valencia's Brain Bowlers prefer to think of themselves as geeks, thank you. "A nerd studies a lot," explains Prather, "but a geek has more social skills."

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