For the last 16 years, Weehawken High School has compiled a team that has been as competitive and as successful as any of its athletic teams. The dedicated warriors of the Weehawken Academic Team are now ready to achieve greatness among other schools in Hudson County.
The team will head Wednesday to the semifinals of the annual Hudson County Public High School Principals Association's Academic Challenge, joining Kearny, McNair Academic and Union Hill to compete.
Right now, the Weehawken team is in second place, looking to capture its third Hudson County title in the last four years.
Mary Bea Kingwill, who initiated the program to the entire county 16 years ago, is once again the coach and advisor to the Weehawken Academic Team, along with fellow teacher Al Cevoli.
Kingwill never gets tired of working with the kids, preparing for the tournament.
"We wanted to have the kids who were academically talented to have a chance to achieve as much as those who participate in athletics," Kingwill said. "That's why we did it, to give those who weren't athletic a chance to compete in something. We originated the program and it just took off."
This year, there were 18 teams representing 10 different Hudson County schools. Weehawken fielded two teams in the tournament, an A team and a B team.
"One is like a veteran team and another is like the junior varsity," Kingwill said. "But the younger ones have been pretty good. We have a very strong A team."
The questions are courtesy of an Ohio-based firm called Questions Unlimited. The format is a lot like the popular television quiz show, "Jeopardy!" In fact, Kingwill encourages the team members to watch the show to practice.
"I play Trivial Pursuit and watch Jeopardy to get ready," said senior Francis Petrie, who has been a member of the Weehawken Academic Team since he was in eighth grade. "It really does help, because you never know what kind of questions you're going to get in the competition."
"I watch Jeopardy from time to time and I listen to the answers," said junior Tanvee Trehan. "When I don't know the answers, I try to remember, because I know that it will help me with the Academic Challenge."
The topics provided by Questions Unlimited are somewhat...challenging.
"Some of the categories are insane," Kingwill said. "They range from general knowledge to food, from history to entertainment to marine biology. It's amazing the things these kids know."
As for the competition? Does it become a little heated?
"A little?" Kingwill responded. "Try just as much as watching a football game or a basketball game. There's the same level of competitiveness. It's really like a sport. The competition is reflective of the kids' personalities. They really get into it."
Petrie thinks it's even more intense than regular sports.
"I find it to be more competitive," Petrie said. "In sports, you walk off the field after a game is over and that's it. This is more cut-throat."
"I like the competitive nature of it," Trehan said. "Not only are you learning new things and you're with friends, but you're competing against other schools and it's fun. It's interesting to find out just how much knowledge you have. It's different than sports, because in sports, it's a team effort. In these competitions, the pressure is sometimes really all on you to answer."
While Petrie has been a veteran of the Academic Challenge, this is Trehan's first year with the team.
"At first, I was actually afraid that I couldn't handle it, but after I went to practices, I got more comfortable and the team was more welcoming."
"Because the kids are so competitive, we've had some interesting practices against each other every day," Kingwill said. "We've put together some mock games and even those get competitive."
In recent years, the Weehawken teams that won the Hudson County championship went on to national competitions in Washington, D.C. This year, the national competitions are in Chicago and San Antonio, so the kids are sharpening up their trivia skills with a grand trip in their sights.
"We've had a terrific run with the kids," Kingwill said. "We'd love to take the kids on another trip. We'll have to see what happens."
So what's the national spice of Hungary? See the sidebar to this story for the answer.
Jim Hague can be reached at email@example.com.