Q: Hi-Q winner?; A: Archbishop Murphy

MILL CREEK — The gymnasium was jammed.

The room erupted in whoops and cheers as the teams entered the room.

But as the competition began, there was silence so deep it was as if everyone was holding their collective breaths.

It was the type of silence you sometimes hear in the last seconds of a basketball game, home team down by two points, the star free throw shooter standing at the foul line, just as the ball has begun its arc toward the basket.

In this competition though, teams from Monroe, Jackson and Archbishop Murphy high schools were participating in an academic contest called Hi-Q.

Points are awarded for correct answers to questions on topics as varied as art history, literature, current events, math, chemistry, geography, and American and world history.

Most of the questions had to be answered within 15 seconds.

The three teams were battling for the state championship and the chance to go on to the national competition next month.

The Archbishop Murphy team got the early lead and continued to build a winning margin as the questions posed to the three teams ranged from naming the curate in Agatha Christie’s “Tape Measure Murder” to what one character cautioned another in Act 3 of “The Tempest.”

At the end of about 40 minutes of competition, the Archbishop Murphy team had accumulated 55 points, Monroe 40 and Jackson 23.

Craig Bowen, the Jackson High School team coach, said many of the students participating in the Hi-Q competitions go to top colleges and universities.

“Three years ago, we had a girl attend California Institute of Technology,” he said. She since has published a paper on astrophysics.

Jessica Zhuge, 17, a Jackson High School senior, said that she’s participated in her school’s Hi-Q team since she was a sophomore. “You learn a lot,” she said.

Paul McGoorty, an Archbishop Murphy senior, said that the team had worked hard all season. “It was a great way to end my senior year,” he said of his team’s win.

Fellow team member Emi Phillips, 18, said students often spend two to three hours a week preparing for the competitions, work that is in addition to what’s required for their academic course.

“It’s exciting,” she said of the team’s win. “It’s really fulfilling to have all the hard work pay off.”

Max Vilgalys*, another Murphy team senior, said that the match was exciting, but nerve-racking. Now the team has to prepare for the national meet, with harder questions, he said.

Murphy coach Gail Wellenstein said it made her nervous to sit and watch the teams compete. “Even though I have total confidence it the kids, it still is nerve-racking,” she said. “It was exciting. You could feel the energy in the gym.”

Wellenstein said that the participating in Hi-Q helps prepared students for college. “I think it’s an excellent example of how to learn a body of material…with an added fun element of turning it into a game,” she said.

The matches, with their cheering crowds of onlookers that burst into applause for right answers, also provides participants with important messages about the high value of academics, Wellenstein said.

“So often in discussions of education in the United States, they say, ‘How can we promote learning? How can we get more people in science, technology, engineering and math?’ By making it seem cool and fun, that’s an excellent way of promoting learning.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com

Correction, March 7, 2013: Max Vilgalys’ name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.

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