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Hamilton-Wenham fights to retain its title in ‘High School Quiz Show’

School puts its quiz show title on line

Jay Connor for The Boston Globe

Billy Costa greeted Clata Mao of Sharon as (from left) Hamilton-Wenham’s Chris Anderson, Siobhan McDonough, Connor Schmidt, and Ian MacLean looked on.

Feet clad in neon-green Converse sneakers shifted back and forth. Fingers twirled long strands of brown hair. Hands jingled change in pockets.

There was some pacing; a lot of chattering; last-minute quizzing on current events.

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Finally, they were summoned - cue the bright lights, the cameras, the announcer, the cheering crowd.

It was time for speedy reflexes to rapidly retrieve facts from troves of trivia knowledge. And most of all, it was time to defend their school’s honor.

After winning it all last year, Hamilton-Wenham Regional High is once again engaged in a battle of brainpower in the third season of WGBH-TV’s “High School Quiz Show.’’

A team from the school handily made it to the second round of play last Sunday, knocking out Sharon High School in the process. Players Chris Anderson (a veteran of last year’s team), Siobhan McDonough, Ian MacLean, and Connor Schmidt will face Brookline High School on April 8 in the tournament’s quarter-finals.

“It was a good comeback,’’ McDonough, the team’s only female player (and the one with the nervous, neon green Converse-clad feet), said amid a celebrating crowd at the WGBH studios after the win.

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A test of smarts, determination, and quick synapses, the Emmy Award-winning competition pits 16 teams from public schools across the state against one another in a bracketed elimination tournament with fast-paced games in the format of “Jeopardy!’’

Hosted by TV and radio personality Billy Costa, the competition premiered Feb. 12 on WGBH, and the final two teams will spar for state supremacy when the championship round airs May 20. Along the way, contenders will be pared down in qualifying matches, then quarterfinals, and finally semifinals in shows airing at 6:30 p.m. every Sunday.

Hamilton-Wenham is one of four north-of-Boston schools in the running this year: Beverly will go up against Acton-Boxborough Regional this evening, and Rockport and Somerville will have a skirmish of smarts on March 4.

Brookline was the first team to advance, beating Seekonk High School on Jan. 12.

The other teams in contention include Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, Lexington, Arlington, Belmont, Weston, Shrewsbury, Milton, and Hingham. All 16 were culled from an initial 90 challengers in a “Super Sunday’’ event last fall.

For Sharon, it was a revenge match against an ominous rival: Hamilton-Wenham booted the Sharon team from the semifinals last year before ultimately going on to win the championship against Mt. Greylock Regional High School (and, in the process, impressing everyone with their knowledge of the word “synecdoche’’).

And both teams were prepared for the fierce rematch, taped at the WGBH studios in Brighton on Jan. 28.

After a few minutes each in the makeup chair, the clipping-on of microphones, and posing for promotional photos, the players waited anxiously, milling around a cavernous “green room’’ (a misnomer; it was actually black) with their coach, Vincent Bucci, all wearing matching dark-blue shirts.

“I’m kind of nervous,’’ said Schmidt, an 18-year-old senior from Hamilton. “We have big shoes to fill. But we’re a confident team.’’

As for their preparation?

Nothing too different from their normal routine, he said. They gathered for the regular weekly meetings of the school’s College Bowl Club, did their usual studying and reading, and followed current events and sports.

Also, each kept up with their respective strengths: sports and pop culture for MacLean; pop culture for Schmidt; science, math, and history for Anderson; and literature for McDonough (a 17-year-old junior who picks up tidbits from book covers in her part-time job shelving books at the Hamilton-Wenham Public Library).

Overall, the team is well-rounded, said MacLean, a 17-year-old senior from Hamilton. “We will be competitive.’’

But members also noted their specific strength in Anderson, who was a force to contend with last year (and whose hobby is “speedcubing,’’ or solving a Rubik’s Cube in a personal average of 16 to 17 seconds).

He’s “pretty much our strongest player,’’ said MacLean, “quick with the buzzer.’’

Still, the 17-year-old Hamilton senior humbly noted that he’s “a bit lacking in literature,’’ and weakest when it comes to sports and music.

And despite his time on last year’s team, he acknowledged being “kind of nervous with the pressure of having to defend the title.’’

But before getting down to that competition, the studio staff went over some basic rules: Hit the buzzer with the heel of the hand, not the flat; after buzzing, wait for Costa to call your name before answering; only first answers would be accepted; and no signaling allowed between players and coaches.

Soon after, a headphone-wearing, clipboard-brandishing tech came in; it was time.

The two teams shook hands and wished each other luck, then lined up and proceeded to the closed studio door, abuzz with nervous chatter and laughter.

“You ready for this, kid?’’ MacLean asked Schmidt, trying to pump them both up. “You ready?’’

Inside, after emerging from behind a giant black curtain, the team was heralded by the theme from “Rocky,’’ while a small crowd cheered from bleachers.

Sound and buzzer checks followed, as well as several takes with the audience, ebbing and and flowing between raucous cheering and complete silence, following the direction of the stage manager.

Then it began.

The four rounds - toss-up, head-to-head, category, and lightning - were intense and difficult to follow, as contestants (particularly Anderson) rang in almost always before Costa finished reading each question.

They blew through questions related to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,’’ the Beatles, Georges Lemaitre’s Big Bang theory, fashion, geometry, Charles Dickens, the Cold War, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Taking a pause from the action - and in a nod to “Jeopardy!’’ - Costa asked each contestant a little about themselves (but with a bit of a twist).

If they had the choice, he queried, which founding father would they want to have as their father, and why: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or George Washington?

Anderson: Ben Franklin. “He did so much more with his life,’’ he said, noting his scientific innovation and creativity.

McDonough: None of the above. “I really wouldn’t want to live in the 18th century,’’ she said, rousing laughter from the crowd.

Between takes, Anderson also fiddled with a Rubik’s Cube he almost always seems to have in hand. Showing off with a sly smile, he quickly pivoted the colored faces with one hand.

The score stayed close through the first two rounds, but the champions ultimately outpaced their rivals in the category round, eventually winning the game, 530-195.

“I’m really relieved that nothing horrible went wrong,’’ McDonough, who also plays flute and runs cross-country, said as the audience swarmed the studio floor when the cameras were finished rolling.

And, she said, she also learned a valuable lesson about the various types of intelligence.

“There’s a difference between knowing things,’’ she said, “and being able to answer them quickly.’’

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