Students ready to meet the challenge

New Egypt High School participating in the annual Rutgers University academic competition.

By: Scott Morgan
   PLUMSTED — In the spring, as professional hockey and basketball teams gear up for the playoffs, golf becomes symbolic for those who do not qualify to advance. As the sentiment goes, you either win or you hit the links.
   Last year, in the Rutgers University Academic Challenge, New Egypt High School was so far out of the running, even golf would have been a step up. But this year, even the most intrepid sleuth will not find anyone from the NEHS academic team on the fairways. This year, the team is in the hunt — and they’re ready.
   The Rutgers Academic Challenge is an annual competition for high schools around the state. The competition is a series of group problem-solving activities in science, mathematics, language arts and the social sciences, in which teams of eight are given two minutes to prepare a presentation based on clues to the solution. Schools vie for cash prizes and the President’s Cup.
   For Ann Zaleski, freshman-class writing teacher and coach of the team-with-no-nickname, the change from last spring is no small achievement.
   "This is a 180-degree turnaround from last year," Ms. Zaleski said. And she makes no effort to hide the seeming disadvantages the students face at the Challenge. After all, while almost all the other teams in the competition are comprised largely of juniors and seniors, NEHS doesn’t yet have a senior class.
   Ms. Zaleski’s squad of eight — consisting of John Hekl, Megan Smit, Rachel Kent, Grayson Tarbox, Karen Hammerschmidt, Andrew Coutermarsh, Darcy Forlenza and Dan McCoy — is a group of sophomores and juniors, about half of which are veterans of the 2001 campaign. Also, Ms. Zaleski points out that, based solely on the sheer number of students, the pool from which she could draw an octet of mental might is quite a bit smaller than the pools of some other schools, which sometimes are double or even triple NEHS’ student population of 332.
   Yet, there it is, a team of eight that this year finished sixth in a statewide field of 30 in the opening round of competition. On Sunday, this somewhat unlikely team will tackle eight other high schools in the regional semifinals at Rutgers’ Busch Campus, New Brunswick. Only the top three regional champions from around the state will advance to the finals in June.
   Facing off against such regional foes as Linwood’s Mainland Regional High School, Northern Burlington Regional High School and cross-county rival Brick Township Memorial High School (which incidentally, finished third overall last year), Ms. Zaleski said her team is ready to go and excited about the competition.
   Ms. Zaleski said she and the team train for the competition by running mock drills based on last year’s questions. Taking no chances, Ms. Zaleski said, she often recruits help from specialists around the school, such as math or science teachers. Being a writing teacher, she said, gives her little hope of guiding the team through the tough chemistry and mathematics questions by herself.
   All this extra input has made this year’s team pretty well-rounded, she said. And it’s a good thing, since, as she put it herself, if the knowledge isn’t there, the answer isn’t either.