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Swaggers, jitters before ‘High School Quiz Show’

Pittayut Phonboon of Sharon High endured a hair and makeup session before a recent taping of WGBH-TV’s “High School Quiz Show.” Rishi Solanki (right) and his Wellesley High teammates faced off against Chelmsford High.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Pittayut Phonboon of Sharon High endured a hair and makeup session before a recent taping of WGBH-TV’s “High School Quiz Show.”

Quenton Hurst, or “Q,” as he prefers, seems a natural candidate for a quiz team — he’s interested in, as he put it, “bizarre facts,” “really obscure things,” and has a reservoir of “snippets” of knowledge.

The spiky-haired 16-year-old, who is representing Rockport High School in this year’s installment of WGBH-TV’s “High School Quiz Show,” also doesn’t lack confidence. He’ll be ready to deliver the goods “wherever they need me,” he said in an interview before a recent Sunday morning taping at the WGBH studios in Brighton. 

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The other 15 high schools participating in the fourth installment of the show are Hopkinton, North Quincy, Acton-Boxborough Regional, Hingham, Brookline, Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, Somerville, Chelmsford, Wellesley, Sharon, Lexington, Needham, Framingham, and Wachusett Regional. 

As in past years, each game includes four rounds hosted by ubiquitous local personality Billy Costa: a team round, a head-to-head, a category round, and a lightning round.

The televised competition, which begins Sunday with a face-off between Hopkinton and North Quincy, will see the 16 teams — culled from an original pool of nearly 100 — duke it out for the championship and bragging rights.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Rishi Solanki and his Wellesley High teammates faced off against Chelmsford High.

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One fierce matchup? Chelmsford and Wellesley.

Wellesley’s ace may be Merritt Losert, a soft-spoken 18-year-old senior with an interest in science, guitar, and mountain biking, and who is described by junior teammate Rishi Solanki, 16, as a genius.

Solanki, for his part, was preparing to mount a stiff offense against Chelmsford through his knowledge of current events and politics.

Sixteen-year-old teammate Brian Rappaport, meanwhile, planned to call upon his expertise on literary masters such as Dostoyevsky, evidenced by the copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” on his lap, as well as his inner “geography buff.”

But Wellesley’s challenge in the show comes down more to in-game dynamics than its breadth of knowledge, he said. “We have a lot of different areas covered,” he said as he sat in the studio’s green room. “Our main weakness is the strong personalities competing.”

Meanwhile, across the way, Chelmsford players Graham Lustiber, an 18-year-old senior, and fellow senior Tom Hoang, 17, were sizing up their rivals.

“They look pretty confident,” Hoang said with a smirk.

There was also a bit of pre-game scouting, they acknowledged. “We looked into them, yeah,” said Lustiber, who will bring strengths in math and physics to the game, alongside Hoang’s background in computer engineering.

Minor variations in tactics aside, most teams seemed to follow the same prep formula: watch past seasons of the quiz show (as well as a good dose of “Jeopardy!”), spend hours on Wikipedia, and meet with each other as schedules allow to run practice drills and, most importantly, test their reflexes.

“We crammed, really,” acknowledged Solanki, “but it works.”

A bit later, students from Rockport and Sharon gathered in the studio to do their own cramming and sizing up. (Each, coincidentally, were dressed in maroon polos to boast their school colors.)

Smartphones in hand, team members ran each other through a gantlet of last-minute practice questions, on topics ranging from Jane Austen and T.S. Eliot, to “Best Picture” nominations and math problems.

Sharon senior Pittayut Phonboon, 17, admitted to having some jangly nerves in the final minutes before the game’s start.

He’s struggled to find a center of gravity during competition. “I’m either too hesitant or too aggressive with my answering,” he said.

But he has his strengths as well. “I know a lot of random stuff that my friends might not know,” particularly related to history and military facts, he said. “I can fill in the gaps where these guys slip.”

Both teams were stinging from losses last year to the formidable Hamilton-Wenham squad: Sharon was dropped in the first round, while Rockport fell in overtime during semi-finals.

Rockport junior Alexandra Legendre, 17, planned to delve into her deep well of pop-culture knowledge, while senior Evan Razdan, 18, stressed the importance of reflexes: “Your reaction time, that’s a big thing.”

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Rockport High’s Nate Allen, Corey Silver, and Alexandra Legendre got in a last-minute study session before a taping of “High School Quiz Show.”

And while he acknowledged to being a little jittery, he said, “I’m not shaking-in-my-shoes nervous.”

As the teams prepped in the green room, headphone-clad staffers zipped in and out, checked name pronunciations, snapped pictures, and helped teams strap on microphone packs while a judge, Michael Gamerl of the Princeton Review, went over the rules.

Rule number one? Have fun. “We will, in fact, deduct points for anti-fun,” Gamerl quipped.

Players also must allow host Costa to finish reading questions before buzzing in, he said. Signals between coaches or team members, whether furtive or explicit, are expressly forbidden. And, finally, only first answers are accepted.

With the ground rules laid, the first teams filed into the studio as a divided and boisterous crowd shouted support, waving signs with big block letters proclaiming: “WHS!” and “Go Chelmsford!”

And, well, that’s as far as we can go, folks.

Want to know who taxed their brains the most? Tune in.

The first show airs Sunday, Feb. 10, at 6:30. Get everything else you need or want to know about the teams here: www.wgbh.org/quizshow/index.cfm.

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@Gmail.com.
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