Muscles, take the bench. The brains are going in.More than 1,000 middle school students took to the playing field at this year’s Junior High Academic Decathlon, the annual “gray matter” match-up at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. With 113 schools competing, this was the most participated decathlon in history since the program was founded in 1989. Finishing first and second overall were St. Lawrence Martyr (Redondo Beach) and Cathedral Chapel (Los Angeles). These two schools will represent the Los Angeles Archdiocese at the statewide competition May 4 in Fresno.Cheered on by almost 4,000 spectators, student teams took their places on the Sports Arena floor for the daylong event, a culmination of countless hours of study, prepping and reviewing. Only pencils, erasers, scratch paper and water bottles — as well as their combined team spirit — were allowed at their tables.“This is more nerve-wracking than playing sports,” admitted Mariana Trevsersa, an eighth grade decathlete from St. Margaret Mary Alacoque School in Lomita. “You can think, ‘Oh, that’s just a soccer game,’ but here we’ve been working up for this one moment. And it’s right now.”“I have never been here before and I almost had a panic attack when I saw the crowds,” said her seventh grade teammate Jared Stillhard. “But then, I got better.”Indeed, after the shock of seeing hundreds of tables subsided, it wasn’t long before students settled down to their cerebral business.“The Academic Decathlon is a wonderful thing the archdiocese does,” said Barbara Moldavon, Cathedral Chapel’s head decathlon coach. “It celebrates achievement and it changes lives forever. It’s all about what can happen when you do your best.”Cathedral Chapel has a long history of high achievement with the Academic Decathlon, having won the overall competition more than a decade ago, and continues to celebrate its wins years later. “We still get together with our 2002 [first place] team and take them out to dinner and keep up with them on Facebook,” said Moldavon rattling off an impressive list of colleges these former decathletes have gone on to, including UC Berkeley, UCLA, Boston University and Dartmouth. “They tell us that even in college they remember the things they studied and the way their studying for decathlon helped them tremendously,” she said. “They tell us that they still use that teamwork mentality they learned at decathlon.”The decathlon consists of three segments: the Logic Quiz and the Super Quiz (in which all 10 teammates participate), plus individual events (Roman Catholic doctrine, English, Literature, Science, Mathematics, Current Events, Social Studies, and Fine Arts, comprised of art and music).Perhaps the hardest thing about academic decathlon for coaches and principals is to choose their team. “There are so many kids who would be great on the team,” said Kris Knowles, principal at St. Lawrence Martyr, which repeated its 2012 win. “It really comes down to academic achievement and how willing they are to commit to the time. Lots of our team members want to continue to do sports so we schedule our study times early in the day so they can practice after school.”Knowles credits his coach, Kathy Wise, other parent coaches, pastor and associate pastor, with contributing to its success. A dedicated study space at the school is organized with resources, study guides and other materials related to the decathlon. “We also do a lot of projects related to the subjects, visuals and concept maps that help the kids remember and retain important bits of information,” he said.The Academic Decathlon started in 1989 by Dr. Mark Ryan who taught at St. Aloysius School in South L.A. From a small competition involving a handful of schools from the greater Los Angeles area, it has since grown to become a statewide event.While final scores were being tallied at this year’s competition, Mass was held with Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark presiding.Finally, at the nail-biting awards ceremony, medals were distributed with eager — and sometimes stunned — students racing up to the platform to receive the well-deserved prize. One enthralled recipient jumped up and clicked his heels after receiving his medal. Prize winners returned to their seats to high-fives, hugs and tears, as families and friends in the spectator seats above burst into thunderous applause of pride and joy.“This is the Olympics of academia,” said Moldavon. “I just talked to a friend whose team placed 19th overall. It was their first time that team broke the top 20. She was elated, so happy and crying. But really, there are no losers at decathlon. Even if you studied your best, worked your hardest, reached your highest, you have to stand and salute those who did better than you. That’s just what you do. Because those teams will make you stronger in the end.”Top winnersOverall (top 20): St. Lawrence Martyr, Redondo Beach; Cathedral Chapel, L.A.; St. Martin of Tours, Brentwood; Notre Dame Academy, West L.A.; American Martyrs, Manhattan Beach; Christ the King, L.A.; St. Philip the Apostle, Pasadena; St. Mel, Woodland Hills; St. Frances de Sales, Sherman Oaks; Incarnation, Glendale; St. John Fisher, Rancho Palos Verdes; St. Genevieve, Panorama City; Holy Family, South Pasadena; St. Bridget of Sweden, Van Nuys; Sacred Heart, Lancaster; St. Linus, Norwalk; Sts. Felicitas and Perpetua, San Marino; St. Elizabeth, Altadena; St. Dominic, Eagle Rock; St. Timothy, West L.A.Team Logic Quiz: St. Lawrence Martyr.Team Super Quiz: Cathedral Chapel.Individual winners: Felicia Cruz, St. Mary (Palmdale), Religion; Steven Rojas, St. Timothy, Literature; Annie Benedict, St. John Fisher, Math; Margarita Herrera, St. John Fisher, Fine Arts; Matthew Craig, St. Lawrence Martyr, Science; Katrina Santos, St. Linus, English; Justin Kim, Cathedral Chapel, Current Events; Alex Tighe, St. Philip the Apostle, Social Studies.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0308/acdecath/{/gallery}