When the final buzzer sounded, the top honors in the annual "It's Academic" championship went to Howard High School, again.
For the third time in five years, the three-member team from Howard High clinched the Super Bowl of the nation's oldest school quiz program in a contest that was taped in Washington on May 15 and broadcast on area television stations June 19 and Saturday. Howard High previously won the Super Bowl in 2000 and 2002, and competed in the 2001 Super Bowl.
The Howard High team -- seniors Amelia Liebhold, Eric Moberg and Vincent Wickenheiser -- defeated the Washington area winner, Richard Montgomery High School, and the central Virginia champ, Spotswood High School, before an enthusiastic crowd of parents, well-wishers and cheerleaders.
"It's like a sporting event. I was on the edge of my seat," said parent John Moberg, whose son Eric will attend the University of Maryland this fall.
Howard is not regarded as an academic powerhouse in the county yet it has repeatedly defeated high profile schools such as Centennial on its way to capturing the Baltimore regional title, which qualifies it for the Super Bowl. But longtime coach John Gilbert isn't gloating.
"All the schools in Howard County are excellent schools," he said. "I get to see that firsthand."
Nevertheless, the quiet, focused coach said he knew in the final minute of competition that the Super Bowl was theirs.
"I might've been a little more nervous had I not been there before," said Gilbert, who's coached "It's Academic" teams at Howard High for 13 years. This year the team earned $2,675 in scholarship grants for the school from "It's Academic" sponsors Giant Food Inc. and cable company Comcast, as well as a tall Super Bowl trophy.
"His teams are always poised and cool and self-assured, as well as knowledgeable, of course," said Sophie Altman, Washington producer of the 43-year-old "It's Academic" program.
As a Hammond High student, Gilbert competed on the school's "It's Academic" team in the 1980s. He became involved with Howard's team when he heard through a friend that it needed a coach.
"I figured it was a reasonable use of my time," said Gilbert, who works as an auto mechanic in Rockville.
He devotes several hours a week to helping students review old trivia questions from television, hone buzzer strategy and get ready for the 20 local and regional weekend tournaments they play yearly. He keeps things on a casual, first-name basis with students and stresses teamwork.
"Most people in the school don't know who he is," said Liebhold, who is the team captain. "He's kind of a shy person. He's really into science and physics kind of stuff. He plays softball with friends on Sundays, and he plays a lot of chess."
As a freshman three years ago, Liebhold attended an after-school practice and watched the exchanges between quick, seasoned players.
"They were very dominating, intimidating," said Liebhold, who will attend Brandeis University this fall. At first Liebhold was scared to join the group, but she became more comfortable as she participated in tapings and practice rounds.
This year the team divided into areas of specialization. Moberg brushed up his Shakespeare, while Wickenheiser honed his knowledge of science. Liebhold kept a poster in her bedroom to memorize all the world's capitals.
"The three of us are all really good friends, so that definitely helps, knowing how we work together," she said.
But on the day of the Super Bowl taping in the Washington television studio, Liebhold's apprehension returned.
"It was just so nerve-racking knowing that it all depended on us," she said. The questions went by in a flurry.
Afterward, the team and Gilbert went out to dinner to celebrate.