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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Maui makes like MIT to seize day

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Time was running out in the double-elimination final of yesterday's 12th Annual Hawai'i Science Bowl. Maui High School team captain Jonathan Nguyen, 17, haltingly recited his answer to the last question of the day — which called for the letter abbreviations to a sequence of DNA proteins so complicated, some in the audience had no idea what was being asked.

Maui High School Science Bowl team members, from left, Caine Jette, 16, and Becky Wunder, Jonathan Nguyen and Christian Ling, all 17, concentrate on a tossup question in the final round of the 12th Annual Hawai'i Science Bowl at Honolulu Community College.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

"... U-A-A-C-C-U-U-G-A-A-C-U ... " Nguyen said, seconds before the buzzer ended the game.

Moderator Jim Crisafulli paused to check the answer sheet.

"Correct!" he said as the crowd of 150 inside the Kapalama Multimedia Conference Center at Honolulu Community College gasped, and then applauded.

With that Maui High School scored a stunning win over the defending state champs, Iolani School, which had gone into the finals undefeated and appeared to be unstoppable.

"Iolani is Iolani," James Brazas, 16, a member of the Hanalani High team, had said moments before the finals began. "I have tremendous respect for Iolani. You'd practically have to have a team of valedictorians to beat them."

Maui High School Science Bowl team coach Ed Ginoza gets a congratulatory hug from team member Caine Jette, as Christian Ling, left, and fellow senior Becky Wunder, right, enjoy the moment.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

On top of that, Maui, which polished off the third-place finishers, Hilo High, in the semifinals, would need to beat Iolani two times to take the state title. With the score tied at 44 at the end of the halftime break in the first round, the crowd knew it was in for a nail-biter.

"It was incredible," said Crisafulli, who is head of research for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. "It doesn't get much more exciting than this."

Throughout the day, 120 of the state's brightest science and math students representing two dozen public and private high-school teams, participated in round-robin and wild-card contests that led to the afternoon semifinals and finals rounds.

The competition consisted of tossup questions worth four points and bonus questions worth 10 points. Gamesmanship plays as much in the strategy as knowing the right answers.

When it was over, the winners breathed a huge sigh of relief.

"Being tied at the break — that was really tense," said Nguyen, who, along with his three teammates, had rattled off correct responses to science, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy and math questions so complicated that even Crisafulli's tongue got tangled several times trying to pronounce the technical terms.

"We were all really scared, I think all of us were really worried. I don't think we thought we really ever had them — not until the very end. But the team came through. I was really proud of them."

It wasn't as if Maui could be considered an underdog. Three times in the past four years it has won the state title, which has entitled it to represent Hawai'i at the annual National Science Bowl in Washington, D.C.

When the team heads for that contest in the U.S. Capitol April 28 through May 2, it will be the third such journey for Nguyen and fellow senior and teammate, Christian Ling, 17.

According to HCC physicist, Don Bourassa, who has helped coordinate all 12 of the state's regional Science Bowls. "We always hold our own at the nationals — Hilo came in eighth place in the early 1990s."

Maui High coach, Ed Ginoza, said his whiz kids will get in plenty of practice before flying to Washington. But that's only part of the strategy.

"We split up the team into various disciplines," he said. "In other words, we don't just depend on one person. It's a total team effort. You'll notice that Jonathan is our physics and math person. The others each have their specialties."

When the team returns next year to defend its state championship, Nguyen and Ling will have moved on to the next phase of their lives. Nguyen isn't sure exactly how he'll put so much knowledge to work. But Ling was at least toying with a plan.

"I want to be a rock star," he said with a laugh.

Will Hoover can be reached at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.