By Pat Brown
Families across the New River Valley watch plenty of TV shows, but they could be watching a home-grown war of the wits at their local high schools.
Mountain Academic Competition Conference (MACC) is the name of the local brain game most people are missing. It usually takes place on Monday evenings, and it can give adults a glimpse of what a smart, motivated high school student can accomplish with practice, a competitive spirit, and a love of knowledge.
MACC is a competition that pits school teams against each other without a single spherical object; it is not a sport.
It takes place on a stage and it includes tension and drama, but it isn’t a play.
There are judges present, but it is not a court case.
Willing kids, with both intelligence and nerve, volunteer to be on MACC teams at each area high school. The teams represent each of the four core academic areas: English, science, math, and social studies. A fifth team is the all-around team, comprised of students able to field questions on multiple subjects, including business, philosophy, religion, the visual arts and music, in addition to core subject areas.
The first part of the season includes matches that allow all five teams from one school to face off against the five teams from another school. Each team starts with a round of 10 directed questions. During this part of the competition, team members can collaborate and agree on an answer if they do so within 20 seconds.
In the next round, each team faces fast-paced toss-up questions, where quick, accurate thinking is essential. One team’s members have to know the answer and buzz in before members of the opposing team. No conferring is allowed.
“The tension gives me adrenaline and makes me work harder,” Kim Jennings said. A senior at Auburn High School and captain of the social studies team, she said the toss-up round is her favorite, even though it is also the most challenging phase of the contest.
Scores for all the matches are recorded and posted on the internet, so each team from each school can see exactly where they stand. At the end of the season, in March, there will be a bracketed tournament to determine the winner of each district. Then, another all-day contest, Super-MACC, takes place, determining the top teams in each category.
MACC is unintentionally a well-kept secret. It lives in the shadow of local schools’ well-developed sports programs.
“Unlike sports events, people don’t usually hear about the matches,” explained Alanah Horning, captain of Christiansburg’s English MACC team. “It’s a very quiet and intense process.”
But there was some polite noise Monday night when Eastern Montgomery traveled to Auburn for a match. There was applause for correct answers, and sometimes opponents were applauding each other. Picture that at a sports event.
A MACC meet involves about 40 participants, including time-keepers and judges, and there were only about 60 people in Auburn’s auditorium Monday evening.
“My friends don’t think of MACC as cool,” said Auburn’s Anne Peters, a senior and captain of the science MACC team. “But I don’t mind. I still choose to participate.”
“Teachers and school staff support us more than friends,” said senior Steve Shelton, a member of both the social studies and all-around teams at Christiansburg High School.
Adding hours to school day
At a practice Monday at Blacksburg High School, the all-around team started their session with refreshments. Later that evening they would travel to Giles County High School to compete. Buzzers were set up in the classroom of Karen Costen, a social studies teacher and sponsor of two MACC teams.
Sam Bernhard, a senior, was quick to sound the buzzer when Costen called out questions. He demonstrated that being captain of both the social studies and all-around teams has given him confidence, as he attempted many practice questions and got most of them right. None of the team members had seen the set of questions Costen was using, she confirmed.
Most students polled said their friends rarely attended their matches, but Bernhard had a few words of encouragement. “This year more people have come (to watch MACC matches) which is really exciting for me and my friends who play MACC,” he said.
Christiansburg High School’s math team practiced Tuesday afternoon in Dee Davidson’s classroom. She sponsors the math team and coordinates the school’s MACC program.
“I want to start by saying you guys did a great job last night,” said Davidson. “I was so, so impressed with you.” CHS’s math team beat Floyd’s Monday evening.
Then she brought out the review questions. There have been matches going on for 27 years, and all the previous questions are fair game for practices. There were probability problems and lengthy equations and complicated questions about polygons and triangles.
Sitting in desks, which they had already been doing for 6½ hours, students puzzled and computed and attempted each question. When they struggled, Davidson stood at her overhead projector to show them how to tackle the problem.
Looking over one question before posing it to her team, Davidson quipped, “The probability of getting the answer to this one in 20 seconds is zero.”
Jiyun Chang, CHS math team captain, said her favorite part of the competition “is the teamwork utilized to solve slightly longer problems.” She said her goal is “to make my team proud and not lose points.”
Chang said Davidson sometimes sweetens the practice session with homemade brownies.
Calculating the gains
“I’m getting leadership experience from being captain,” Julie Greider said. A Blacksburg senior, she heads up the English MACC team. Greider said she gets nervous at matches, but added her nervousness “probably helps me be more alert.”
Matt Moschella, a senior and captain of Christiansburg’s All-Around team, said he values the camaraderie of being on the MACC team as well as the knowledge he gains. He described the split-second decision that is critical to winning the toss-up round: “You have to balance your chances of beating the other team to the buzzer with your assuredness that you know the correct answer.”
“I gain knowledge and a feeling of accomplishment when we win,” said Shelby Brooks, a junior at Radford High who is captain of her school’s English team.
AHS senior Kelly Jennings is captain of math MACC and twin sister of the school’s social studies captain. “I gain friends who share the same interests and a greater knowledge of the subject,” she said.
“I get to apply everything I have learned in science to answer MACC questions,” said Jeff Feng. He is captain of Radford’s science team and has been participating since eighth grade. Last year he started the season as the only member of the science team, but succeeded in recruiting some friends. Participating in MACC, Feng said, has taught him that “winning involves taking chances.”
“The most challenging part is staying focused when you have a string of questions that the team struggles with,” said Radford’s Daniel Hawke, a junior and captain of the social studies team. He said he expects to put in about 60 hours of practice for MACC this season, plus another 25 hours at competitions.
MACC, which started in Southwest Virginia back in 1985, now has participants in 17 schools. MACC’s success inspired the Virginia High School League to launch its Scholastic Bowl contest, according to Karen Trear, MACC coordinator at Auburn High.
These days there are enough MACC teams to have a show-down between the Eastern and Western counties of the area. Radford marks the western boundary of the Eastern District MACC teams. The Western District teams lie between Pulaski and Grayson.
On Monday night you can see the action in person. Auburn will travel to Floyd County to compete. Eastern Montgomery will host Narrows. Blacksburg will compete against Christiansburg at CHS. Radford will travel to Giles. Matches begin at 6 p.m.
Chris Lee, Christiansburg’s science MACC team captain, said he won’t be letting the tension of meets get to him. “Getting an answer wrong isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “I’m just there to have a good time and compete.”