Today we will be doing what we hope will be the first in a long series of interviews with Philadelphia area quizbowl personalities to pick the brains of some of our finest. First up we will be interviewing Bill Tressler, a longtime quizbowler who coached Wilmington Charter from 2002 to 2010. Under Bill’s tutelage, Charter went from a local to a national power and captured victories at both major Quizbowl nationals in 2009. Today you can see him as a frequent moderator at area Middle and High school events.
1) How did you first become involved with quizbowl?
I grew up in central Pennsylvania in an area where few schools had quiz teams. (That is sadly still true today.) The only competition I got to do in high school was a television tournament sponsored by a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton station. We finished 2nd out of 16 teams and I got a $750 scholarship.
I did my undergraduate degree at Dickinson College and played on the team there. I also attended Carnegie Mellon and Delaware for graduate degrees and spent some time with both of those teams.
2) How did you end up coaching Charter?
I had been the coach at the Sanford School prior to my tenure at Charter. After 3 years I decided I was going to look for a new position, and Delaware player (and Charter alum) Mark Pellegrini mentioned to me that the computer science teacher at Charter was retiring. I immediately sent in a resume.
Beenu Gupta had been Charter’s coach, but she gladly gave me the academic team because she was also involved in Science Olympiad and Environathon.
3) During your time coaching, Philadelphia had few teams attending invitationals or doing pyramidal events. How did you deal with getting Charter ready to play the best teams from quizbowl-rich areas?
It took a while. In fact, I’m not sure I took the team out of state in the ’02-’03 season until we went to Nationals in Myrtle Beach. We started 0-2 because they weren’t used to that caliber of competition. But they quickly adjusted, made the playoffs, and picked up two wins on Sunday before going out in the group tied for 8th. That was back when nationals had “only” had 64 teams.
Each year we added a few more bus trips to the schedule. We always enjoyed going to Brother Nigel Pratt’s Long Island Fall Tournament, and eventually started going down to the D.C. area because that’s where many good teams were competing.
4) What about your 2009 team do you think was special, getting them over the hump to win nationals?
By the 2008 nationals, the team was already in the top 4, so the table was set. Henry Gorman and Neeraj Vijay were returning. We lost Raja Vel and Byron Pierce, but David Huang and Crabby Berni had similar strengths.
’08-’09 was a rough year. The team really wanted to take down one or both nationals, so every time we suffered a loss, the pressure mounted. People got mad over the smallest mistakes that any other team could just laugh off.
Somehow, everything fell into place — and it was very close right up until the end. In our PACE playoff bracket, we took a loss to Walter Johnson (MD). And then our match against Hunter (NY) went all the way to the last tossup. If that tossup had gone the other way, we probably would have finished 5th.
The final was a similar story — we led the whole match only to see State College (PA) pull ahead by powering tossup 20. All they needed to do was get one bonus part to win. Instead, they got zero the bonus and we won because we got 20 points on the bouncebacks.
The level of competition that year and the parity among the top six or seven teams was just insane. What got us over the hump? Quite a bit of luck.
5) What was the wackiest quizbowl match you saw as a coach? Player?
I don’t know if this counts as wacky, but one of my favorite memories our match against New Trier (IL) at the 2007 HSNCT. After 8 tossups, the score was something like New Trier 180, Wilmington Charter -5. Somehow, we slowly chipped our way back into the game and ended up winning by 5 points on the last question.
6) What ways did you find most effective at encouraging students to get better? Did you have lots of general principles or handle things on a case by case basis?
I was fortunate in that I taught at a magnet school. The students wanted to do well, I just had to provide the opportunity.
If you want to score points, you have to know the canon. If you don’t know who wrote “The Prince” and who painted “The School of Athens”, you’re not going to win many matches.
We had NAQT’s Frequency Lists, plus a few others we had generated ourselves, and I passed them out to players all the time. Then during practice, I would write down things the players missed but needed to know, and asked the same questions at the following practice.
The Internet now has plenty of study material for players who put in the time. That didn’t exist when I first started playing quizbowl.
7) Any advice for new coaches?
It takes a while to build your program. And you always have to be working on “the next generation.” So it’s important to take two or three teams to tournaments.
If you have to limit the size of your team, make sure to include the youngest grade at your school. Even when we had to have tryouts because I just couldn’t take any more team members, I always took the best 5 or 6 freshmen. My thinking was that the first year is about hearing the same topics come up again week after week. So by a player’s third or fourth year of quizbowl, they get those points with little difficulty.
Thanks to Bill Tressler for doing this Interview. -Ben Herman