Crowning a New Champion: Valencia Wins National Title in Quiz Bowl Competition

Pop the corks and get out the dictionaries: Valencia College’s quiz bowl team captured its sixth national title at the National Academic Quiz Tournament’s Community College Championship Tournament in Atlanta on Mar. 1.

From the outset, it was clear that teams from Florida’s state and community colleges would dominate.  More than half of the 24 teams present came from Florida colleges — and three teams from Valencia qualified for the competition.

But it was Valencia’s Red Team — consisting of Julio Gonzalez-Zuluaga, Cassandra Logan, Levar Burton and Lincoln Warner — that dominated the competition. The squad lost only one match throughout the two-day contest.

In the finals, the Red Team faced off against Valencia’s longstanding rival, Chipola College from Marianna, Fla. Although Chipola has won two straight national championships, Valencia’s team emerged victorious this year, capturing the final game, 405-245.

Valencia’s Black Team — consisting of Jen Smith, Diorcy Ortiz, Barry Grogan, Will Ober and Nam Nguyen — finished fourth in the competition. The Gold Team, which consisted of Conan Wilson, Guens Delius and Audrey Thompson, lost an player due to a family emergency, but still won a game in the tournament.

With dominant performances at the Atlanta tournament, the Red and Black quiz bowl teams earned the right to go to the Intercollegiate Championship Tournament, which will be held in Chicago in late March. There, the Valencia teams will compete against teams of freshmen and sophomores from academic heavyweights such as the University of Chicago and Yale University.

Realistically, their odds are steep:  Valencia’s veteran Red Team is ranked 18th going into the tournament. They hope to finish in the top 10 at the tournament.

Still, Valencia has a history of being giant killers. In 2003, a Valencia quiz bowl team finished second in the national championship — a shocker to many in the largely white, male quiz-bowl community.

That’s unlikely to happen again, says Borglum, an English professor and former quiz bowl collegian, because the competition has gotten much better, thanks in part to the Internet.

“The caliber of all the teams has gotten better,” says Borglum. “The middle is so much better than it used to be … The kids have internet resources.. all those questions, all those resources. It’s getting harder.”

In the 16-year history of the national tournament, only two community-college teams have had a top 10 finish. In 2003, Valencia finished second, while Chipola finished sixth last year. “If we finish in the top 10, it would be a tremendous victory,” says Borglum.

To prep the Valencia players for the national competition, Borglum and fellow coaches (and math professors) Boris Nguyen and Damion Hammock began drilling them with tough questions shortly after they clinched the community college championship.

“The questions get harder. Starting today, if the question is about Charles Dickens, the books will be something like ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ No more ‘David Copperfield’ for you,” says Borglum.

Indeed, the students know that they’ve got to step up their game if they’re going to compete against the likes of students from Yale, Stanford and the University of Michigan.

“At the community college contest, the questions are usually about things you’ve heard of, like ‘Huck Finn.’ At this level, the questions are things you’d learn about in grad school, but only if that was your area of specialty,” says Gonzalez-Zuluaga, a math major, three-year quiz bowl veteran and one of the leading scorers at the national community college tournament.

Valencia’s players devote more than six hours a week to practice — and most spend even more time than that boning up on subject matter and studying questions from previous tournaments. Early each year, Borglum tries to ferret out what the students are interested in, so they can specialize in one of the topics that invariably show up in competition. Most of the questions come from literature, history and science, but there are also plenty of questions about religion, mythology, math, geography, philosophy, music and current affairs.

Cassandra Logan, for instance, transferred to Valencia from the Great Books program at St. John’s College of Maryland, so she handles a lot of literature questions, as do players Jen Smith and Diorcy Ortiz.  Gonzalez-Zuluaga and Will Ober specialize in history and politics, while Lincoln Warner and Barry Grogan are the team’s go-to players for science questions.

Gonzalez-Zuluaga, Logan and Ober each were top-10 scorers in the competition and were named all-stars.

Pictured in front row:  Julio Gonzalez-Zuluaga (Red Team: third year); Conan Wilson (Gold Team: first year)
Back row: Damion Hammock (math professor, WPC); Guens Delius (Gold Team: first year); Barry Grogan (Black Team: first year with team; second year at Valencia); Will Ober (Black Team: first year with team, second at Valencia); Diorcy Ortiz (Black Team: second year)

Not pictured: Cassandra Logan (Red Team: second year); Levar Burton (Red Team: third year); Lincoln Warner (Red Team: first year); Nam Nguyen (Black Team: first year); Jen Smith (Black Team: second year); Audrey Thompson (Gold Team: first year)


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