Just across the freeway, "Jackass" the movie is playing in 3-D.

At Kelso High School, however, dozens of students in the Knowledge Bowl don't seem to know that it's cool to be a fool.

What they do know is military history, the science of waves and energy, advanced algebra, world geography and — yes — details of the United States Constitution.

"I figure I've got a gift for getting things right," said Dan Stone, a senior on Kelso's varsity Knowledge Bowl team.

"If I read something, I remember it well. And I'm a competitive person."

His other sport, Stone said, is high-powered rifle competition sponsored by the Washington State Rifle and Pistol Association. It all fits, he said — being a marksman sharpens his interest in military history, which steadies his aim at history questions in contests based on rapid-fire knowledge.

Megan Flemings got into the club for quick thinkers because her mother said she needed an activity in addition to soccer.

"I tried Knowledge Bowl, and I liked it," said Flemings, who has since switched from soccer to swimming but stuck with Knowledge Bowl.

"It exposes you to things you wouldn't have thought of," she said. "Some of the questions add to my reading list."

That reading list gives back at contest time, she said. "I read all kinds of stuff. If it keeps me interested, I read it. And I ask a lot of questions."

Wednesday's event was the first of four regular-season contests in the Lower Columbia League, made up of 12 varsity teams and 15 JV teams from Castle Rock, Ilwaco, Kalama, Kelso, La Center, Mark Morris, R.A. Long, Ridgefield, Toutle Lake, Wahkiakum and Woodland high schools, said Steve Powell of Mark Morris, coordinator of the League.

The top scoring teams advance to regional and state competition.

Wednesday's events included a written round, where team member Dana Staples-Weyrauch (pronounced "way-rock") said Kelso was able to collect 45 points.

The writing portion sets all the teams to work collaborating on answers to multiple-choice questions. That score gets merged later with orals, the out-loud portion.

Kelso finished third overall, trailing only Mark Morris and R.A. Long.

"That's our... best in two years as a team," Staples-Weyrauch said.

In the orals, three teams meet in a room and race each other to answer questions posed by teacher volunteers called "readers."

Kelso's varsity — seniors Chris Demars, Flemings, Staples-Weyrauch, Stone and Camden Waldron - played its first round against Ilwaco and Ridgefield.

Team members are jacks of all academic trades, they said, but each has a special strength.

"Dan has a seemingly perfect memory of history," Staples-Weyrauch said.

Returning the compliment, Stone said Staples-Weyrauch is the go-to guy for math.

Flemings, who said she's likely to finesse the geography questions that pepper each round, said the group chose Waldron as their captain "because he's real smart."

Four players compete at a time, with one or two substitutes rotating in and out at set intervals. Teams sit at separate tables with a bar that gets bopped when they're ready to answer.

Captains can make judgment calls. When Ilwaco captain David Rodriguez Perez signaled a sub to stay out, the student protested. Rodriguez Perez told him, "That's what captains are about - making decisions.")

A bar set high

The game proceeds like this:

Readers recite the question, from a standardized list provided by the national Knowledge Bowl organization.

Teams get 15 seconds to respond with no gadgets or electronics allowed, just a blank sheet of paper and a pencil or pen.

Team members may take notes, work math problems or huddle and talk — quietly — to come up with an answer. One person is designated to respond. He begins his statement with the words "Team answer," signalling that all members are in agreement.

The team that hits the bar first gets the first whack at the question. Rules allow five seconds for teams to reach agreement and supply an answer.

Correct answers earn a point and the reader goes on to the next question. After a wrong answer, the other teams are given a chance at the question.

Kelso's Knowledge Bowlers said their reflexes, speed and confidence have improved, thanks to regular practice and competition.

"You learn to trust yourself," Flemings said. "Sometimes I have to fight for my answer. It feels really good when I know an answer and I'm sure about it."

Flemings also appreciates the chance to meet kids from other schools.

During a dinner break, when local firefighters served up hotdogs, the Knowledge Bowlers mingled, some sporting odd headgear — Halloween remnants? — and seriously witty T-shirts.

Andrew West of Wahkiakum High wore one that says "Videogames destroyed my life. Good thing I have 2 extra lives."

Practice, funding and the nerd factor

Schools have different regimens. While Kalama practices three times a week, Kelso meets only twice.

Kelso's club coach, Jerri Patten, inherited her post 12 years ago. Club members "learn to see issues from different angles. ... It teaches them to pay attention in class, because all of that information could show up in the form of a Knowledge Bowl question," said Patten, who teaches advanced placement history and language arts.

"When we go to state competition, often each member of the team takes on a particular speciality area," she said, "looking at past practice questions, reading synopses of novels. They also need to figure out when to hit the bar first and when to let everyone else go first to buy more time."

The club supports itself, Patten added. "We sold the memorial bricks in the courtyard outside the (school) entrance. We still have more slots available."

The biggest expense is transportation. "An anonymous donation from a parent of a former team member is helping with transportation this year," Patten said. "I don't know what will happen after this."

Patten recruits team members from her AP classes, gets "great backup" from other teachers and is happy to put in the extra hours.

"I believe that what I am doing is valuable for kids, especially those who are not particularly into athletics but enjoy competition, so I just keep doing it," she said.

Team member Flemings also talks up the club.

"I've been pushing for more girls," Flemings said, ticking off the benefits. "It helps keep your curiosity alive. It looks good on college applications because it's not just a club, it's academic."

What about the nerd factor?

"There's a little bit of truth there," said Staples-Weyrauch. "But we don't really care."


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