As night faded to dawn the Saturday following the winter homecoming dance, most Marion High School students slept soundly, welcome respite from a week of studies. Others did not.
Cars began arriving in the high school parking lot around 7 a.m., with students shaking off the mental fog of morning, preparing to match their intellects against others in a rare Saturday scholars’ bowl competition Jan. 6 in Council Grove.
“We’re not used to Saturdays,” coach Doug Vogel said. “Most of the others are afternoons and evenings.”
As six of the 13 members of the MHS scholars’ bowl team — senior Drew Knolla, juniors Jenevieve Corona, Angel Funk, and Elizabeth Goentzel, and sophomores Nick Meyer and Zach Robson — settled in for the 45-minute drive, Vogel handed out a set of practice questions.
“I’ll go ahead and give this to someone, but don’t mess with them for awhile. But by the time we get to Herington or later, start muttering questions,” Vogel said.
Vogel has coached MHS scholars’ bowl teams since 1989, two years after the activity became a state-sanctioned championship competition, and admits he wasn’t sure what he was getting into.
“When we came here to Marion, the principal asked me to do scholars’ bowl. I had no idea what it was,” Vogel said.
Scholars’ bowl competitions typically have preliminary pool play rounds, with the top teams from each pool advancing to elimination rounds to determine a champion.
A round consists of 16 questions from seven categories — world language, social studies, language arts, math, science and health, fine arts, and year-in-review. Questions are presented by a moderator, and judges are present to interpret and rule on answers as necessary.
The team that signals first with a buzzer gets the chance to answer a question, and earns 10 points for a correct answer.
“The majority of the questions are buzzed in early,” Vogel said. “You don’t have to wait until the question is done, but if you buzz in they’ll stop the question immediately and you must give an answer. If you get it wrong, it’s minus five points.”
As the team rolled through Lincolnville, Funk began calling out practice questions. The unique traits of individual team members come through when discussing the merit of such last-minute practice.
“The only reason I get involved with the review questions is because Mr. Vogel throws a hissy fit if we don’t,” Knolla said. “It’s not so much for preparation.”
Meyer said the practice occasionally pays off.
“It happens every meet, it seems like, you get either one of the prep questions you’ve just gone over, or one of the questions you’ve been over in practice,” Meyer said.
The questions continued, broken up by occasional humor and spontaneous singing, until the team arrived in the parking lot at Council Grove.
MHS team members balance their drive to excel and win with a fun, low-key, and at times irreverent perspective to competition. While waiting for the preliminary round to begin, they talked casually and played card games, in stark contrast to several teams around them.
“It seems like we do better if we’re having a little bit of fun on the side,” Meyer said.
While the team usually pays little attention to their rivals, seeing a team dressed in formal attire and acting intensely businesslike can spark critiques.
“I cannot stand people who take it over-seriously. These guys were hyper-nerdy, like this was their life, and that drives me crazy,” Knolla said. “You can tell by the way they talk, the way they walk, they sound and look different. They’re just nerds.”
Intellectual high schoolers who participate in activities like scholars’ bowl run the risk of being labeled nerds by their peers, but Vogel said his team’s low-key approach has helped them avoid that among their classmates at MHS.
“Every once in awhile you get the sense that other kids say that scholars’ bowl kids are nerds, but that hasn’t been the case here,” Vogel said.
Instead, compared to other extracurricular activities, scholars’ bowl flies well under the radar at MHS, team members said.
“It’s extraordinarily underrated,” Knolla said. “I don’t think they even know who’s on the team.”
“You can letter in scholars’ bowl, but lettering in scholars’ bowl isn’t as prestigious as lettering in a sport,” Goentzel said.
“If people want to hear about it, it gets around by word-of-mouth,” Meyer said.
The team was acknowledged at a January basketball pep rally, something Meyer said was atypical.
“We weren’t recognized at all last year, so I was surprised when they called us down this year,” Meyer said.
The team doesn’t concern itself with recognition, preferring to focus on what they get out of being involved with scholars’ bowl.
Knolla, Robson, Meyer, and Goentzel all became involved in scholars’ bowl in seventh grade, but there were different motivations for doing so.
“I got involved because people asked me to, because I was pretty much the smartest in every subject,” Knolla said. “Obviously, a lot’s changed since then.”
“All my friends were doing it, so I did it, too,” Goentzel said, noting most of those friends no longer participate.
“I went to a meeting one day and I answered quite a few questions, along with Zac, and we weren’t given much of a choice after that.”
Robson was more succinct and to the point.
“I got in because my mom made me,” Robson said.
None of the four said they do things specifically to build their knowledge for scholars’ bowl. It’s something that comes naturally.
“I don’t do anything special, but when I watch TV shows that are educational, I have such a good memory that I don’t forget things,” Meyer said.
“In the words of Lady Gaga, I was born this way,” Knolla said. “I have a pretty photographic memory. I just live, and that’s how I get knowledge.”
Fun is the common thread that has kept these students involved with scholars’ bowl.
“It’s fun, and you learn something new at every meet,” Goentzel said.
“It’s fun, we have a good time, and it makes you feel kind of smart if you know the questions,” Meyer said.
Knolla was more philosophical.
“It’s just really humbling, the things you don’t know, or the things other people know that you don’t — it just kind of makes you think a little bit,” Knolla said. “It kind of knocks you down a little to where you’re not thinking that you’re better than anyone else, you’re just doing it for fun.”
Marion will be among 16 teams vying for the right to advance to the state tournament when they travel Thursday to Douglass for regional competition.
Even with a state championship bid on the line, the team will likely be consistent with its nature as they approach the event.
“I think we’ll treat it the same as we do any other scholars’ bowl meet,” Meyer said. “We might treat it a little more serious, knowing that if we do we’ll get to play some more.”