The teams from Walt Whitman and Woodrow Wilson high schools were still cramming 20 minutes before show time. Hunched over separate tables in WRC-TV's studio cafeteria, the adolescent savants devoured stacks of 3-by-5 cards filled with data on T.S. Eliot's poetry, the Bay of Fundy's tides . . . anything that might be asked on the television quiz show "It's Academic."
A few tables away, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase team sat back in what they hoped was a confident contrast. With a world of information to digest, they decided a last minute fact snack would be futile.
"It's too late," said Chuck Lane, captain of the three member B-CC team, which won a narrow victory over Montgomery County's Whitman and the District's Wilson last weekend for the "It' Academic" area championship. "If they don't have it by now, they aren't going to get it."
Having it is a prerequisite for "It's Academic." For 18 years, the locally produced, half-hour program has been a showcase for intellectually precocious high school students. The contestants are inevitably National Merit scholars with IQs that resemble professional bowling averages. But when the television lights go on and the producers start exhorting the audience into a game show frenzy, it's not so much what you know as how fast you can show it.
"It's just like any other sport. You have to be psyched up," said Lane, a Harvard-bound presidential scholar who also played third base for B-CC this year. "The worst thing for high school kids is being afraid to be embarrassed."
The pressure was on last Saturday with $1,000 in scholarship funds and the brain-power bragging rights for this area at stake. There was an added incentive, since the local winner would be representing the 81 schools from Washington, Maryland and Virginia that competed on the show this season against the Baltimore area champions later in the afternoon in what the show's producers were generously billing the "It's Academic Super Bowl."
"The Super Bowl" was something less than that as B-CC whipped a Randallstown High School team from Baltimore County by 260 points. The nail-biter was the local championship, which remained a virtual three-way tie for half an hour of questions about Scandinavian composers, Roman comedians and obscure wars. The championship was decided by the final answer which was, ironically, a lucky guess.
The competition itself was a tense, bell-ringing affair made more uproarious by the frequent thunder from cheering sections, pom pom girls and school bands. With less than 10 seconds remaining in the championship contest, Whitman led with 410 points, followed by B-CC with 400 and Wilson with 390. The difference between the three teams was just one 20-point question when the show's grand inquisitor, Mac McGarry, began the final one.
"In writing our alphabet, what is the first vowel between . . ." was as far as he got when B-CC's Lane rang his bell. Later, Lane would admit he jumped the gun, that he had not heard enough of the question to make more than a guess. But the competition being what it was and the game in the euphemistic last inning, Lane decided to swing for the fences. He guessed that the question was an easy one, designed only for speed. Anticipating that the remainder would read ". . . the first vowel between two consonants," Lane answered "E." He was right.
"That was like a basketball playoff game," said McGarry, who has been the "It's Academic" emcee since the show began in 1961. During that time, McGarry calculates he has asked more than 75,000 intelligent questions and gotten almost as many intelligent replies.
McGarry says the show and the students on it have changed relatively little over the years except during the "restless" Vietnam era of the late 1960s. McGarry once had a contestant answer his standard "plans after high school?" question by saying he intended to smoke a lot of marijuana. The producers decided to keep the answer in the show.
"It's Academic" has never been a power hitter in the ratings, but it has outlasted programs that were. The show's creator and executive producer, Sophie Altman, attributes that longevity to her staff's dedication ("We worry over every question like a dog") and to Giant Foods, which has sponsored the show since 1967.
At one time, there were local copies of "It's Academic" in 10 American cities, all produced by Altman. There are now only five. But Altman hopes the "back-to-basics" educational movement will carry the show back into some of those lost markets, particularly New York and Chicago. There is no shortage, says Altman, of worthy contestants.
"When you're little, there are two things you can do on rainy days," said B-CC team member George Mannes, explaining how one becomes a teenage scholar. "You either watch the Flintstones or pick up the world almanac."
"I always watched the Flintstones," countered teammate Christina Luedke. The B-CC senior was the only female among the three teams and her participation was a direct challenge to Wasserman's Law, a theorem proposed a few years ago by a Walt Whitman student which stated that no team with a female could win the championship.
"That's bogus," said Mannes, coming to Luedke's defense before the start of the contest. "Northwood won last year and they had a girl on the team. And we're going to win it this year."
If there was a pre-game favorite it had to be Walt Whitman, primarily because of its veteran coach, George Kohut. A former football and basketball coach at Whitman, Kohut was the first to incorporate game-simulated score boards into his training sessions.
They are now standard at most of the top-level schools. Kohut's teams have won five "It's Academic" championships since he took over in 1964, but now he says, "we have to run faster just to stand still" with the rest of the competition.
This was the first season Wilson coach John Glaze's team has advanced to the finals since he began coaching seven years ago. B-CC's coach, James Biedron has won two Washington area championships and one "Super Bowl" since he became the team's mentor in 1972. Last weekend he added two more trophies to the B-CC collection.
"I don't have time to sit and worry about this," said Wilson captain Craig Partridge after the final buzzer had ended his "It's Academic" career. "There's a high school frisbee championship starting this afternoon on the Monument grounds and I'm the coach of Wilson's team." CAPTION: Picture, The lineup for It's Academic, By Craig Herndon - The Washington Post