The high school winter sports season in Vermont was a turbulent one, with squads playing far fewer games and several schools pulling out of the playoffs completely after students tested positive for COVID-19.
But when an entire league can go virtual, it’s not as much of a problem. In other words, smart move, Scholars’ Bowl.
Kevin Commo, Vermont’s tournament director for the fast-paced quiz game — more commonly known nationwide as Quiz Bowl — said the league knew as early as last summer that the winter season was going to be dicey as an in-person event.
“We were pretty lucky,” Commo said. “We had regular competition, whereas other sporting events were in flux, not knowing what was going to happen until the last minute.”
The regular Scholars’ Bowl season wrapped up March 20, with Essex Junction beating theretofore undefeated Hanover in the finals, 225-180. Essex answered seven of the final eight answers correctly to overcome a 45-point deficit.
Lamoille Union High School was bested in the Medlar Cup semifinals — which Commo likened to the First Four play-in stage of the NCAA basketball championship.
Lamoille coach Pat LaClair said the move to an online version helped his players gel as a team and compete with schools with “deeper pools to pull from.”
Typically, some of the drama at Scholars’ Bowl competitions comes from players smashing the buzzer to answer quickly, a tactic that rewards the bold … if they truly know the answer. The online version trades that for each team’s ability to have a couple extra seconds of “conferral time,” where teammates can double check with each other before giving an answer.
“For us, I think all of our students are generalists, in some sense, and are bringing some confidence, a little bit of scrappiness,” LaClair said.
Knowledge is power
Sara Sargent, an 18-year-old senior from Johnson, has been on the Lamoille Scholars’ Bowl team since she was in seventh grade. That was a tough season in a competition that favors students who can pull from a deep well of knowledge.
“There were chemistry questions and calculus questions, and I was, like, ‘I don’t know any of these,’” she said. After half a decade of it, though, the teen has absorbed enough book learning and heard enough question phrasing from the quizzes that she’s comfortable as the team’s veteran.
That’s largely by design, according to LaClair and Commo.
“The majority of the questions are tied into curriculum that students learn throughout high school,” LaClair said. “It’s amazing watching students who, say, their jam is solving math problems quickly, just totally get into the zone.”
Sargent is less of a specialist in any particular topic and more of an across-the-board ringer, fond of word play — get a category like “Words that start with W” and her brain is already 50 yards downfield. She also watches a lot of “Jeopardy,” something of a common refrain for quiz bowl players, it seems.
She likened knowledge to an all-you-can-eat buffet, back when, you know, those were a thing.
“There’s so many different things out there. Why wouldn’t you want to try them all?” she said. “And if you decide that you like something, you can always go get more.”
Erubey Lopez, a 17-year-old senior from Hyde Park, said team members can lean on each other for specialized knowledge. For instance, one of the freshmen on the team is strong in literature, and British literature in particular. Another memorized all 195 world capitals.
“Everybody comes from a different walk of life and has different experiences and interests,” Lopez said. “And I think that’s what helps us be successful as a team, coming from those different perspectives.”
According to Sargent, the teammates have so much trust in each other they sometimes let themselves get a little too egoless.
“We sometimes trust each so much that we’ll be, like, ‘Oh, no, I’m sure your answer’s right,’ ” she said, laughing. “It’s a really good team and I think we have really great chemistry.”
Scholars’ Bowl in Vermont is sanctioned by the Vermont Principals Association, which oversees organized sports in the state. In many ways, Scholars’ Bowl fits right in with basketball, soccer, baseball and hockey. After all, the Scripps Spelling Bee is one of ESPN’s most popular offerings.
Commo said both state semifinal matches were decided on the last question. That’s the quiz bowl version of a walk-off home run.
These quiz competitions resemble high-scoring, back-and-forth sports like basketball rather than a tense yet languid 1-0 baseball game. A typical match between two good teams can run into the mid-300s for scoring.
That means there’s a lot of time to stage a comeback and a need to be able to shake off a wrong answer because the next one is coming seconds later.
“You just leave what you didn’t get right in the past and just move on to the next one,” Commo said.
Typically, part of the game is quite tactile, too, as players rapidly work the buzzer to get the chance to answer first. That aspect of the game was largely eliminated from competition this year, because of iffy broadband in many parts of the state — although the organizers did have a one-off competition featuring a virtual buzzer.
Commo points to South Burlington High School senior Matt Vigneau, who could literally be called the team’s ringer.
“He’s by far the best buzzer player in the state,” Commo said.
He thinks that eliminating that advantage, in part, got South Burlington, arguably the best team in Vermont, eliminated and allowed state champion Essex to play to its strengths, namely its deep bench.
Lopez said while the tactile-buzzer-smashing part of the game was missing this season, the most important thing that drew him to Scholars’ Bowl remained: his friends.
“It’s just that connection with my teammates, you know, like having lunch over question sets,” he said. “I still love to make time for Scholars Bowl in my day for that connection piece, but also to be more competitive.”
Lopez thinks the online mode benefitted Lamoille because teammates were allowed a precious few seconds to confer with another to come up with an answer together. These conferrals were part of the live version, too, but only in a couple of rounds and the answers were worth fewer points.
Lopez laughed, and said Lamoille is something of a dark horse. He said in a recent tournament, the Lancers were pitted against the top team from Burlington High School and held their own, only losing by 15 points or so.
“I don’t think anybody thought we had a chance of coming close to them,” he said. “And it was disappointing, but it was great to, like, grasp at it.”
Lopez said the best Scholars Bowl players see it in the same way soccer players see their sport.
“It might not be ‘which pass to make, or where to point your foot?’ but it’s kind of, like, ‘where to point your thinking,’” he said.