PQB Interview: Wayzata’s RATRACE Champions

Over the last decade, Wayzata High School has become home to one of Minnesota’s strongest and deepest quiz bowl programs. Coached by Meaghan and Brian Decker, the program put multiple teams into the playoffs at the 2016 HSNCT and will bring six teams to this year’s tournament. In January 2017, Wayzata’s “A” team of Cara Fragomeni, Divya Goel, Tora Husar, and Alicia John won Minnesota’s annual RATRACE tournament. In doing so, they became the first all-female team in Minnesota’s NAQT era (and likely ever) to win a quiz bowl tournament. Play Quiz Bowl spoke with Cara and Tora about their success at the tournament, the Wayzata quiz bowl program, and their future ambitions.

Play Quiz Bowl – How were you introduced to quiz bowl, and what drew you to the game?

Tora Husar – I joined quiz bowl the summer before my sophomore year (last year) after I saw the team’s booth at Wayzata’s open house. I’ve always liked watching Jeopardy, so I thought it’d be fun to try. After coming to a couple of practices, I realized that I liked the idea of playing as both a team and as an individual, and I thought quiz bowl had a really welcoming atmosphere, which was especially fortunate because I had just transferred to Wayzata and was nervous about making friends.

Cara Fragomeni – All my friends were in quiz bowl during our freshman year, and they always talked about how fun the competitions were and how much “useless” knowledge they’ve picked up because of quiz bowl. I love trivia games and showing off my repertoire of random facts, so I joined the club sophomore year. I found amazing people, a challenging game, and tons of fun traditions and I haven’t looked back!

TH – Joining quiz bowl has probably been the best decision I’ve made in high school–I have made so many good friends and memories through quiz bowl, and I am very thankful for that. Right now some would say that I devote a little too much time to quiz bowl, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

PQB – What has been your favorite memory of your experiences with quiz bowl to date?

CFHSNCT in 2016 was probably the most fun tournament I’ve ever been to. My team was very supportive and we were really on top of our game, but it was even more amazing to watch Wayzata A finish up 13th overall and cheer them on along the way. The finals match that year was absolutely epic as well – I didn’t think there was any way that Hunter could come back after that first half, and it was super cool to watch them win that momentum back.

TH – It’s hard to pinpoint on just one day or experience that was the best, because going to practice and to tournaments almost never fails to be fun, and I think this is especially because a lot of people in quiz bowl aren’t afraid to be silly or funny. A really good example of this was at Run for the Roses earlier this year, where my friend and teammate Ashmita Sarma bought two dozen or so umbrella hats on Amazon and a bunch of players wore them around during and between rounds. The hats may have interfered a bit with circulation to the brain, but it was a lot of fun and I think it just brought our team together that much more. I also really enjoyed traveling to Boston to compete at the Harvard Fall Tournament last November.

PQB – The winning RATRACE team is the first all-girl team to win a tournament in Minnesota’s NAQT era, and quite possibly the first ever. What does that accomplishment mean to you and your teammates?

CF – When we went into RATRACE, I don’t think any of us were thinking about the fact that we had an all girls team. We knew we had the potential to do really well and everyone definitely came to play that day. Tora was absolutely on fire and we all worked really hard to keep our momentum and morale up. I know it’s been a dream of Ms. Decker’s to have an all girls team win a tournament, and I’m very proud to have been a part of that!

TH – Although there is a bit of a gender imbalance in quiz bowl as a whole, I don’t think that means that girls aren’t welcomed by the quiz bowl community or that girls aren’t motivated to work hard for quiz bowl, and I think our victory reflects that. I don’t think I’ve ever felt excluded or uncomfortable for being a girl who plays quiz bowl, and I think I speak for the whole team when I say that winning RATRACE as a team of girls didn’t feel out of place or out of the ordinary. I hope that our win will encourage more girls to give quiz bowl a try, because it might just turn out to be an amazing experience.

PQB – In general, how do you feel the opportunities quiz bowl provides to female players? What do you think it could do better?

TH – In terms of opportunities to have fun playing the game and playing competitively if one so chooses, I don’t think that quiz bowl has shunned girls, or any group for that matter. Quiz bowl has such a welcoming atmosphere and I don’t think that the gender imbalance in quiz bowl exists because girls are actively excluded or warded away from joining. My perspective on this might be a bit limited because I’ve only been a part of the quiz bowl world for about a year and a half, but I think that the sheer number of tournaments offered every weekend and the initiatives of outreach groups to get new schools involved in the game will lead to an increase in girls’ participation.

CF – I think quiz bowl in general does a really good job of providing a level playing field to every student, and I’ve never really felt like people treated me or my team differently because I’m a girl. Nobody ever assumes that the guy on the team is always the captain, which is very refreshing to see! Last year at Wayzata, three of our four captains were female, and I see the same trend reflected in other schools as well. Something that could be done better is to have a few more female moderators, but in general I think quiz bowl is a very non-gender specific sport, which is awesome!

PQB – After your victory at RATRACE, your team was featured on NAQT’s website, which noted that, among other things, Tora was fighting an illness. What kept you focused and motivated during the tournament?

TH – Since the tournament was set in the midst of flu season, I was a little under the weather and had a cold, but that didn’t stop me from loving every minute of the day, and I think a big part of that was being on a team with friends with whom I don’t usually get to play at tournaments. We really kept the energy going between rounds. It also helped that RATRACE consisted of very short tossups, so I didn’t get a lot of time to pause and feel groggy.

PQB – This academic year, you (Tora) also achieved a perfect ACT score. Do you feel that your experiences with quiz bowl helped you in the lead up to test (and if so, how)?

TH – I would actually say that the reverse was true. The reading prompts for standardized tests often include passages about the humanities, scientific concepts, and literature, and I’ve surprisingly learned a good deal of things that happen to come up in quiz bowl from standardized tests. I distinctly remember taking a practice test leading up to the ACT that included a passage from The Red and the Black, which prompted me to read the whole book (and enjoy it). I’ve also learned bits and pieces about schools of art and biology through standardized tests, so while I can’t say I’d enjoy taking the test more times, it does have its benefits. I do think that being accustomed to thinking fast under pressure in quiz bowl helped me take the test, since various sections have a pretty tight time limit, and I didn’t end up feeling rushed or stressed while taking the test.

PQB – Wayzata impressively qualified six teams for the HSNCT at RATRACE. To what do you attribute the program’s depth and success?

CF – In the three years that I’ve been in quiz bowl, the program at Wayzata has really grown in popularity. It used to be perceived as a “nerd sport” that people do so they can put it on college applications, but now I think everyone realizes that quiz bowl is a really supportive club where everyone can come together to learn and perform well at tournaments. It really feels like a family, and everyone wants to see each other succeed. I think it’s this mentality that helped us qualify so many teams, and I can’t wait for nationals with all my teammates!

PQB – In general, how has being a quiz bowl player helped you as a student?

CF – Quiz bowl has taught me valuable study skills and has helped me identify how I learn best. For example, our team has constructed memory palaces to remember Oscar Best Picture winners, made posters diagramming the taxonomy of animals and had presentations about board games likely to show up in quiz bowl. I think the variety of techniques we use to remember information has come in handy in my classwork, especially memorizing reactions in Organic Chemistry!

TH – Quiz bowl is at its core a game about knowing things, and to get better at it, one naturally has to learn more things. Quiz bowl has opened my eyes to subjects that I would have previously called boring and tedious, and for that I am really thankful. Without quiz bowl, my world view would have been much narrower, and I probably never would have gotten to appreciate the works of John Constable or JMW Turner, who have become my favorite painters, or to enjoy opera, something I otherwise wouldn’t have thought to learn about and experience. In short, quiz bowl has let me discover what my own interests are, and I think that is such an amazing thing.

PQB – What more do you hope to accomplish in your quiz bowl career?

CF – I’m super excited to go to HSNCT in May with all six of our teams and hope to finish higher than my team did last year. I’d like to play quiz bowl in college if the opportunity is available, but I think it would be even more fun to become a moderator and maybe read at next year’s nationals!

TH – It already feels a little bittersweet that I only have one year left to play high school quiz bowl, but I really hope to continue to improve as a player and to continue to have fun with my friends. It always feels good to buzz in on a topic you’re passionate about, to get questions with really obscure or funny clues, and to work together on bonus sets, and I hope that that continues. I plan on playing quiz bowl in college as well, and I’m sure college quiz bowl will be as much of a blast, but it will be hard to part ways with everyone on the team at Wayzata. So I suppose the greatest accomplishment I can hope for is to continue to enjoy doing what I am doing. Bringing home a trophy is always a bonus, but I cherish the friends and memories I’ve made over any prize.

PQB – What’s next for you outside of quiz bowl?

CF – I’m attending the Colorado School of Mines next year to study civil engineering, and hope to get in some rock climbing and skiing while I’m there too. Eventually I want to get my PhD and work for the Army Corps of Engineers, and hopefully stay involved with NAQT along the way!