Cougars Reach Scholastic Bowl National Tournament — Again!

Elm Scholastic Bowl team members

Members of the Elm Scholastic Bowl varsity and JV teams recently joined forces to compete in the Middle School National Championship Tournament, which took place May 6-8 in Rosemont. Team members included, clockwise from back left: Angie Freidin, Olivia Padilla, Lorelei Wittrock, Donald Yu, Zayd Lahlou-Nabil, Patrick Loughnane (who helped the nationals team prepare) and Lizbeth Merlos. Tournament participants not pictured: Aidan Brown, Amelia Munoz, Carmen Vargas. (D401 photo by Dave Porreca)

For the third time since 2018, an Elm Scholastic Bowl team has competed in the Middle School National Championship Tournament

The tournament, sponsored by National Academic Quiz Tournaments (NAQT), took place May 6-8 at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Rosemont.

Coached by Elm social studies teacher Susan Hawes, a Cougars team consisting of four 8th graders, four 7th graders and one 6th grader played eight rounds on May 7, finishing 2-6. 

The two victories were the most wins Elm has earned at nationals in three tries; the Cougars went 1-7 in each of the 2018 and 2019 tournaments. 

Representing Elm were:

  • Aidan Brown, 8th
  • Angie Freidin, 7th
  • Zayd Lahlou-Nabil, 7th
  • Lizbeth Merlos, 6th
  • Amelia Munoz, 8th
  • Olivia Padilla, 7th
  • Carmen Vargas, 8th
  • Lorelei Wittrock, 8th
  • Donald Yu, 7th

Helping the team prepare for the tournament was Patrick Loughnane, a 6th-grade member of the Elm JV.

This year’s nationals team competed against squads from New York City; San Jose, Calif.; Memphis, Tenn.; St. Louis Park, Minn.; Ellicott City, Md.; and Washington, Mo.

A total of 141 teams from 23 states and South Korea competed in the tourney. Thirteen of the teams came from Illinois.

Scholastic Bowl players listen to a practice question.

ABOVE: From left, Olivia Padilla, Lorelei Wittrock and Angie Freidin listen to a question from coach Susan Hawes during a practice session for Scholastic Bowl nationals. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view).

To qualify, Elm had to place in the top 15 percent at a middle school varsity tournament that used NAQT questions and was attended by teams from at least three schools.

Being invited to nationals capped off another successful year for Elm's Scholastic Bowl program. During the 2022 regular season, held in February and March, the Cougars placed second in the Leyden-Norwood Athletic Conference standings for both varsity (8th grade) and junior varsity (6th/7th grade). The varsity finished the season 6-2, while the JV went 8-1.

Scholastic Bowl, also known as Quiz Bowl, is a competitive academic activity that involves answering questions about a vast range of subjects, including history, literature, science, fine arts, current events, popular culture and sports.

Each game pits two teams against each other, with students using a buzzer to interrupt the reading of "toss-up" questions when they think they know the answer. The buzzer system adds speed to the game and rewards students who can process information quickly and accurately.

To learn more about Elm’s Scholastic Bowl program and this year’s highlights, we interviewed Coach Hawes via email. Here is an edited transcript of the Q&A, which took place prior to nationals. Congratulations to Coach Hawes and all of the Cougar Scholastic Bowl team members on a year to remember!

Q&A with Susan Hawes, Elm Scholastic Bowl Coach

What was your reaction when you found out that Elm had qualified for nationals again?
I knew this year's team was hot, and I knew we were going to nationals before anyone else did. Winning Scholastic Bowl matches is in some of these kids' blood. We have several legacies of students whose older siblings were also on winning teams. It hasn't been that long since Elm first fielded a team, but for some Elm families it's now a tradition!

Elm's Scholastic Bowl teams began competing in the Leyden-Norwood Athletic Conference in the winter of 2015-16. What has it been like having LNAC as your “home,” where students have the opportunity to participate in both academic and athletic competitions?
I am so grateful that the Leyden-Norwood Conference has included an academic "team" in its extracurricular offerings. So many of our students are multi-talented! There are usually female students who are on both Scholastic Bowl and the girls basketball team. While those two teams share the same schedule, the conference accommodates them by reversing the grade levels. Eighth-grade girls play basketball first and SB second for two weeks; then they switch with 7th-grade girls shooting hoops until 5 and shooting off their brains until 6 for the remaining matches. This year was an anomaly in that we didn't have any girls on both teams, but we usually do, as do the other teams in the conference.

Scholastic Bowl varsity team competes against Lincoln School.

ABOVE: Members of Elm's varsity Scholastic Bowl team compete in a regular season match against Lincoln School. Four members of the varsity went on to participate in nationals. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view).

Elm first qualified for nationals in May 2018. Can you tell us how subsequent teams have done prior to this year? 
We went back the next year (May 2019) with a little less hoopla. I thought we had another winning team in 2019-20, but you know what happened to that school year. The week after I collected all the uniforms/shirts from the regular season and threw them in my car was the week everything shut down.

For nationals, you’ll bring one combined squad of varsity and JV players. Who was on the varsity and JV teams this season?
A number of students have prior commitments, so they couldn’t be part of the combined team. Here is a list of who played during the regular season: 

  • Varsity — Aidan Brown, Carmen Vargas, Lorelei Wittrock, Amelia Munoz, Max Ziuzia, Maria Martin. 
  • JV — Zayd Lahlou-Nabil, Donald Yu, A.J. Hernandez, Angie Freidin, Olivia Padilla, Lizbeth Merlos, Kate Kondela, Pat Loughnane, Elise Kanable. 

How did Elm qualify for the national tournament?
The NAQT has traditionally sent invitations to the schools that have done well in their own tournaments that purchase NAQT question packets. They specify that the invitation is to the school, not the precise team, which is how we can move on with a combined 6th-8th grade team.

This year was a little backwards. I was peeking at their website before our season ended and noted that the national "Field" was already full. Knowing our Elm students would end up near the top of our list, I took a chance and put our name down as a "Stand-by" team. The Stand-by list is for local schools (local to Rosemont, IL) who can commit to attending in case of a change or cancellation. I was notified shortly after our Leyden Invitational that we did indeed qualify for Nationals, and I could switch our status from Stand-by to Registered. Then I received the official email invitation to attend!

Elm JV Scholastic Bowl team

ABOVE: Members of Elm's junior varsity Scholastic Bowl team prepare to answer a question during a regular-season match against the Lincoln JV. The Elm JV went 8-1 in the regular season, and produced five of the nine members of the school's national team. D401 photo by Dave Porreca (click image for larger view).

Looking back on the 2018 and 2019 tournaments, is there anything you learned from those experiences that you can apply to getting ready for this year's tourney?
Absolutely! We take academics seriously at Elm, and I am very proud of how our Scholastic Bowl teams have competed in our local conference. However, the competition at the national level is a different animal entirely. I walked around the Hyatt Regency at past events saddened by the pressure being put upon other schools' students. I believe our Elm students will enjoy meeting other kids from all over the country, but in representing Elmwood Park they will also be representing how well-rounded our students are. If we win any games, that's just icing.

Overall as head coach, what are your thoughts about the 2022 season and about returning to nationals?  
As you know, the last few years have been rough and tough for schools and students, but on those days this winter that I fantasized about not getting out of bed, I'd remember the Scholastic Bowl kids and realize I couldn't let them down. They were the ones keeping me coming in every day. This tournament should be a great experience for them, win or lose.

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