Fall is upon us and buzzers are ringing in Pennsylvania high schools once again. Many freshman (or older!) players are about to get their first action at a quizbowl tournament. No doubt they will soon understand those unique things no extracurricular can quite obtain: the thrilling reward of a 15 point power buzz on a topic you just learned, the vigorous discussion between teammates as you try to recall who wrote The Glass Menagerie, the frantic quest to outbuzz the ranked team you’ve been pitted against. To help kick off the season, I’ll share my own story as an example of how a lifetime of quizbowl can spiral out of one day.
I did not encounter pyramidal quizbowl until my junior year of high school (2009-2010). West Chester Henderson had a nondescript finish in our non-pyramidal county league the prior year, and hoped to break through and make a real run that season. An e-mail invitation for Princeton’s annual PHSAT tournament happened to make its way into Coach Steve Sobieck’s inbox, and the team decided to enter the contest as a “warm-up” for the County Contest. With me were Senior Mike Spaziani, an excellent player at history with big-time knowledge of theater, Sheila Quintana, a jack-of-all-trades junior, and trigger happy but knowledgeable fellow junior Ryan Mullner.
In that day and age, some of the last vestiges of the pre-modern era of quizbowl events were still around, and Princeton had collected some. This tournament was the only quizbowl event I ever played with computational math, and single-elimination playoffs were to be used. Not knowing any better, we set off for the day… straight into a bye. I don’t remember what we talked about, but the very first round of my very first tournament was spent sitting in a hallway. Once we did get on the buzzers, we had ourselves a long but fruitful day. We finished 5-3, which with hindsight is a minor miracle, considering the schedule we faced- Kellenberg, Pingry, St. Joseph’s, and Wilmington Charter were among the teams we faced that day (A or B team).
Three memories stick out about the matches for me. Two were especially great buzzes. In an early round, I first lined a question on Salvador Dali off of the clue Port Lligat, his hometown and a frequent subject of his paintings. The moderator looked at me in disbelief- for a second it seemed like he was about to accuse me of cheating! I also hammered off an excellent buzz on Joe Biden, a rather sensible get as a former and future Delawarian. The experience of playing Wilmington Charter also left an unforgettable mark on my quizbowl future. Charter was coming off its National Champion season- and despite losing Henry Gorman, were still chock full of great players, including my future teammate and mentor at UD, Alex Gross. We got absolutely decimated- the statistical record shows we somehow managed 110 points but my memory of the match feels like so much less. Every player is going to have to go through this experience once or twice- facing down the title contending team and barely even getting on the scoreboard. Don’t be scared when this happens. With time, those early clues will click and you will get great buzzes in. The reward when it comes is far greater than easy wins from the get-go.
After prelims, we had a two and a half hour wait before playoff seeds were announced, due to some awful statistics mismanagement on the part of the Princeton team. Thankfully this too has atrophied in quiz bowl. We didn’t quite make the cut, finishing as the top team to not get into the playoffs. Tired from the action, we headed home without any sense about playing in the future again. We did end up going back, and in fact our next pyramidal tournament resulted in a third place finish. With the far deeper knowledge we would get from starting to practice on better questions, Ryan and I would be state champions the next year. But those are stories for another time. The seeds were planted at Princeton, and soon I would be completely hooked. As I enter into my seventh year of pyramidal quizbowl as an advocate instead of a player, I have no doubt that I’ll be seeing a few faces live the experience for themselves. And hopefully not getting accused of cheating.