By Tony Hooker
Some teams succeed with talent. Some teams succeed with hard work.
And then there are those special teams who are blessed with both incredible talent and a willingness to work hard.
You can put Villa Grove’s scholastic bowl team in the latter category. Blessed with natural abilities, they also put in the necessary work to find success. How successful? How about being named the small school national champion at nationals in New Orleans last spring? Or how about winning three Masonic regional competitions in a row? I recently had a chance to catch up with Coach Paul Baumann and senior co-captains Sidney Eisenmenger and Grace Hutchison to discuss their team.
Let start with you, Mr. Baumann. There’s been a lot of smart kids who have came through Villa Grove, but why do you think this team has had the success that they’ve had at scholastic bowl?
I feel like they work well together, they try hard, and they figure out how to get along. One of the biggest things that I’ve noticed over the years is that smart kids want to be smart and they like to compete with each other. These guys actually work well together, and it makes a difference on a team.
Grace, what’s been your takeaway from being a part of scholastic bowl?
I’ve been a part of scholastic bowl with basically the same team since seventh grade. The difference and the dynamic every year has been interesting. This year and last, we had the same team, but last year we were very cohesive as a team and we all knew our place.
Sidney, what’s been your favorite part?
I’m definitely with Grace. All the relationships we’ve formed. A lot of these people I might not have talked to outside of scholastic bowl, but then we all come into it (scholastic bow) and we’re kind of like a family.
Is there anything about it that you don’t like?
<SE> Sometimes I get nervous answering questions and I don’t like that. It’s very rewarding to be a part of this team.
<PB> It’s nice to win! <all laugh> It feels good that they compete well. They try hard and in the end they seem to be successful together.
Did you have this level of success in junior high?
<GH> Our eighth grade year, yes. We won conference.
Do you have practices?
<GH> We practice every Monday. We do different forms of practice, so this Monday, we did a lesson I guess. We looked at a frequency list. There’s a specific number of answers, and usually the questions are formed around these answers. They’re the same basic answers and they pop up time and time again during the matches. This week, we correlated a whole bunch of people and a whole bunch of countries and the works that these people have done. Other times, we’ll just go through and answer questions that we’ve had in previous matches.
Does your team have a good memory for that? Do you latch on to answers from previous competitions?
<GH> I would say that we latch on to knowing that we should know, but not necessarily the piece of information that we should know. The fact that we’ve heard it before definitely sticks.
Sidney, as teammates, do you have areas of expertise?
<SE>Some people do have areas of expertise. I’d say Caleb and Isadora know more fine arts than Grace and I do, and Jackson (Wiessing) knows more math than just about all of us?
<PB>I would add that Jackson knows a lot of history.
<SE>He knows just about everything!
<GH> Besides music. <everyone laughs>
What would you say is your area of expertise?
<SE> I don’t really have an area of expertise. I have things that I know really well. Fahrenheit 451. Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller, “The Crucible”, stuff like that.
How about you, Grace? What would you say your strength is?
<GH> Being wrong! My strength is bringing calmness to the team. As a captain, I’m able to hear all sorts of answers and pick the right one.
<PB> They are both very good captains. Grace was captain last year, and this year they’re co-captains.
As Grace said, we need to have a little bit of a soothing, calming influence on ourselves because we are smart, and we know lots of stuff. They sometimes compete with each other to see who knows more and that can be tough, so it helps to have someone who is really calm and centered, and these ladies make a great difference.
With this many brainiacs on the team, how do you determine who’s going to participate in the matches, and how much?
<PB>At the beginning of the year, I tested them on speed questions, just to see how they would do. We figured out their skill set. Of course, we have the exact same team from last year, we just added new talent. With the same team, I kind of already knew who would be the best and who would have a good skill set to work with each other. We used them to form a nucleus and then built around them, and they’ve been great.
And then you work everyone in when you can?
When we can, we try to get everyone in. Our team typically gets a big lead early, which allows us to substitute in, like every other sport or activity. It’s nice for everybody to get to play. Not every sport has that advantage, but we do have Jackson. It makes a difference. A lot of kids do get to play when they might not get to, otherwise.
What would you say to a sixth grader who is going into seventh grade to encourage them to participate?
<GH> I would encourage them to pay attention in class, because it’s really strange how many times that some kind of concept that you learn will be brought up in a scholastic bowl contest.
How about you, Sid? What would you tell someone who is considering joining scholastic bowl?
<SE> I’d say just “Go for it!” Be able to step out of your comfort zone. I remember when we were in junior high, they hadn’t had a team for a while, so it was totally new to the coaches and to us. By stepping out of our comfort zone, it’s led to all of this.
You’ve qualified for state?
<PB> We’ve qualified for state in Masonic. The IHSA is a separate tournament series. Our conference tournament is next Saturday, the 29th, and then we will play in the regionals just after that?
How do you think you’ll stack up?
We’re seeded second in our sectional, out of 33 teams, behind St. Teresa. They beat us almost at the very end last year. There is a chance that we’ll have to play them in the regional. In other sports, the chances of 1 and 2 facing each other in a regional is zero. That’s not how scholastic bowl works. It works on the concept of who is willing to host a match. They’re hosting, Blue Ridge is hosting, and I believe Warrensburg Latham is hosting. That’s three out of the top five, and we’re number two, so there’s a chance that we will face them in that first regional. I believe that we can beat them. We’ll see. On any given day, with any given question set, we might not do as well. Tonight is one of those examples, we had not scored under three hundred points in any match. To be honest, I was a little concerned that we weren’t scoring enough points. The questions are designed to have a hook, and so if you don’t catch the hook, you might not answer the question correctly. That happened to us frequently in our first match tonight. We still won handily. We’re going to do well, because these kids have good talent and they want to work hard.
Last summer, you had an opportunity to go to nationals. How did that come about?
This is my tenth year as a head coach, my second year here, and I’ve developed some techniques that other coaches don’t use. It’s helped us, even though other coaches look at me like I’m insane. Our system works and our students really jelled last year. We had done really well at Masonic and because of that, we received an invitation. You have to do well at regionals or the masonic sectional to be invited. When we played so well against St. T and we could have beaten them, and we really should have, I asked them about it, and they were really excited. It was tough because we had to go out and raise money and do things to be able to go. Then we went there and “Oh, my goodness!” We all thought we wouldn’t win anything, but we did. We lost some, but we did very well, and it blew me away. I knew they were talented, I wouldn’t have even offered if I didn’t know they were so talented, because it’s a lot of time for everybody. Sometimes, as a coach that’s a tough call to make, but in this case it wasn’t. They were worth it. They were willing to work hard and they’re that good, we’ll give them a chance.
Are you going back?
<PB> We are.
<GH> A few weeks after we got back from New Orleans, we found out that we were declared “Small School National Champions”, which in this case small school meant any school under 500 students.
<PB> We were the only school with fewer than 500 hundred students to win a match in the quarterfinals, so we were declared the small school national champions. We got an automatic invitation to go back, but we weren’t going to go back if we weren’t any good. But, our whole team is back.
<GH> We had no seniors last year.
<PB> We will be in transition next year, as we have seven seniors on this year’s team. Our JV team is undefeated, however. So, based upon that, we’ve got some talent. We want to win.
Is there anything you would like to add?
<GH> We’re going to Washington, DC the last weekend in May for nationals. New Orleans is the same weekend as graduation, and with seven seniors, we can’t miss that.
<PB> As you can imagine, several members of the team will be receiving honors. They will do well, and we’re excited. We’ll put out a good effort and that’s all we can expect.