By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Tupelo High School is trying to revive a tradition that was once a major source of school and community pride.
The school added an academic competition team in November, and it began participating in Scholar’s Bowl events last month. Although the new team’s format is different from the school’s old academic decathlon team that once won 17 consecutive state championships, its goal is to return to that lineage.
“Tupelo used to have a decathlon team, and we were really strong, and it fizzled for whatever reason,” said Tupelo English teacher Rand Hinds, who coaches the new team with fellow English teacher April Friar. “We have a lot of talent here at Tupelo High School, and we want to get back to where we can compete with other schools in the state.”
The reasons the former academic decathlon team fizzled after longtime coach Lynn McAlpin retired in 2002 are complicated. Fellow longtime coach Bonnie Webb had retired two years earlier, and without her or McAlpin, the team lost much of its momentum.
The event’s preparation took untold hours – McAlpin guesses that she and Webb probably worked on it every day of the year – and it was difficult to replace the two long-term coaches.
At the same time, many schools had also lost interest in an event that was long dominated by Tupelo. By 2002, only two other Mississippi schools were still competing, and it became difficult to find a host for the state championship, McAlpin said. It was also an expensive undertaking, costing about $32,000 a year for preparation materials, coaches and travel to the national competition.
Whatever its cause, the dissolution of Tupelo’s academic decathlon team left a large void. By winning the state championship, the team competed at the national championships for 17 consecutive years, finishing in the top 10 twice and winning the Central Division three times. Former THS student David Griswold won the national gold medal for math in 2001.
“Because we won so many years in a row, it became a source of pride for the whole town,” Webb said.
Tupelo’s new team wasn’t formed until the middle of November, when new Principal Jason Harris decided it was important for the school to have a team. Hinds and Friar were asked to coach and quickly began assembling a roster, asking teachers throughout the school to recommend students.
They were looking for several qualities, Friar said, like academics, citizenship, the level of courses taken, specialization in a specific subject and good discipline. Letters were sent to 17 students asking them to participate.
The newly-formed team already has shown promise. Students Rick Deaton, Sami Whitwell, Joseph Rebentisch, John Tapscott and Alex Soderstrom placed second at a competition at Madison Central on Jan. 21. In the team’s first competition, it beat St. Andrew’s, St. Joseph (Madison), Florence and Greenville High Schools in head-to-head competition.
Last weekend, THS took two teams to a competition at the University of Mississippi, and saw the A squad placed sixth out of 55 teams.
Deaton, Whitwell, Rebentisch and Tapscott were on that A team. Those four, plus Jace King and Mary Langford, will compete at Itawamba Community College today. Hannah Farmer, Hamilton Lence, Zack Short and Grant Thornton also competed at Ole Miss, and Keri Camp also has been active on the team.
Many of the team members said they don’t know very much about the former academic decathlon team.
“I’ve heard they were very good,” said Deaton, who serves as team captain. “I don’t give it much thought during the competitions because we are in the moment. You can’t rest on your laurels or things that happened in the past. You have to focus on each competition.”
They did, however, talk about wanting to represent the school district and the community, just as the decathlon team once did.
“With all of the talk about Tupelo schools being on the decline, we want to prove that we can still put together a team and beat other schools,” Tapscott said. “It says a lot about our advanced classes.”
Added Friar: “You want to maintain the rich tradition Tupelo has had.”
Both McAlpin and Webb said on Wednesday they are excited to see that tradition continued.
“I’m extremely pleased they are going to have that again,” Webb said. “I think any time you give enrichment for talented students, it has to be a plus for them and for the community.”
McAlpin said having academic competitions provides an important outlet for the highest performing students.
“You don’t have a school the size of Tupelo without an academic team to challenge your brightest students,” she said. “Tupelo must do this. A regular classroom does not challenge them. It is not fun for these kids. This is their football team. This is their soccer team.”