The Acton 17-year-old is an information omnivore: He reads anything he can in encyclopedias, books, textbooks, and on Wikipedia, studies various fields of science, and is particularly intrigued by US history.
“I love to learn everything I can,’’ said Ken Davidson, an Acton-Boxborough Regional High School senior who plays trumpet and is a Boy Scout. “I know a lot of random facts.’’
Which is just the quiver of intellectual arrows his team needs, fighting for Acton-Boxborough’s honor in the third season of WGBH’s “High School Quiz Show.’’
A battle of brainpower, a skirmish of synapses, the Emmy Award-winning program matches 16 teams from public high schools across the state in a single-elimination tournament with a “Jeopardy!’’ format.
Hosted by ubiquitous TV and radio personality Billy Costa, this season’s competition premiered Feb. 12, and the field will continue to be pared down each week until the two surviving schools meet in the championship round on May 20. The shows air at 6:30 p.m. Sundays on WGBH (Channel 2), with several repeats on 2 and Channel 44 during the week.
Acton-Boxborough’s team, composed of Davidson, Victor Pavao, and brothers John and Tom Russell, have advanced to the second round of play, after knocking Beverly High School out of the action in the match that aired Sunday.
Brookline High and Hamilton-Wenham Regional (the defending champs from last year) have also moved up, after bumping off Seekonk and Sharon, respectively.
Counting Acton-Boxborough and Brookline, half of the 16 schools are in communities west of Boston. Lincoln-Sudbury Regional will face Lexington on March 18, Arlington will square off against Belmont on March 25, and Weston will face Shrewsbury on April 1. Remaining squads are from Hingham, Milton, Rockport, and Somerville. All were selected from an initial 90 schools in a qualifying event last fall.
In Acton-Boxborough’s case, it’s a chance for redemption after last year’s narrow defeat: The team lost to Natick High School by just 5 points in a game that came down to the final seconds of play. As Costa asked the last question - In what year did the United States enter World War II? - members from both teams buzzed in within a split second of each other, resulting in an instant replay scenario.
“It was a nail biter,’’ said 17-year-old senior John Russell, Acton-Boxborough’s only returning player.
With their sights set on a better showing this year, Russell and his teammates made sure they came prepared. Twice a week, they met through the school trivia team, asking each other questions, researching topics, and testing their buzzer technique with trick questions.
There was some personal preparation as well - Davidson, for his part, created lists of authors, and also read through glossaries of various books.
In the last week before the first-round taping, he noted, “we felt the pressure was on.’’ But ultimately, he said, “it all comes down to what we did months ahead of time, rather than days ahead of time.’’
Each student’s strengths and weaknesses also are part of the equation.
Davidson, for instance, believes he excels in US history, technology, biology, and “pretty much any science,’’ but isn’t so good with “doing math quickly,’’ he said with a laugh, or “anything spelling-related.’’
Tom Russell, a 15-year-old sophomore, is strong with some sciences, as well as literature and authors, but not so much with chemistry, physics, geography, or the “latter half of our country’s history,’’ he said. (Russell is taking an Advanced Placement US history course this semester, but as of the taping had only made it to James Madison’s presidency.)
What about his brother? John Russell is the history and geography buff. He particularly likes studying maps, and has also taken up the personal hobby of analyzing and drawing out his own airline routes. (His “dream job,’’ he said, would be chief executive of a commercial airline.)
“All of us are prepared,’’ said 15-year-old sophomore Pavao, who’s looking at a career in computer science or engineering, and who also plays tuba, piano, and guitar, as the team gathered at WGBH studios in Brighton for the Jan. 28 taping of Acton-Boxborough’s match against Beverly. “I’m feeling pretty confident.’’
Before the game got underway, team members each spent a couple minutes getting poofs brushed over their faces in a makeup chair, stood still as techs clipped on microphones, posed for promotional shots, and got a run-down of the ground rules: Buzz in with the heel of the hand, not the flat; wait for your name to be called before giving the answer; only first answers will be accepted; no signaling allowed between players and coaches; and, if contesting a question, wait until the end of the round.
After that, they waited, dressed in sweaters, suit pants and ties, in a giant, bay-like room (called the “green room,’’ but it’s really bright, shiny, and black); coaches Susan Bohmiller and Maria Anthony showed their team pride with blue shirts emblazoned with yellow “AB’’ logos. Across the room, their adversaries, in bright orange T-shirts, chatted and milled about.
“I’m excited, a little bit nervous,’’ said Davidson, seated with his teammates, “but I’m ready to take on questions, to take on Beverly.’’
“We’ve been preparing for a long time, we know a lot of stuff,’’ agreed Tom Russell. “I’m anxious to get the show started.’’
And soon, they did.
A woman with headphones and a clipboard escorted the students single-file to the studio.
Inside, a packed crowd of several dozen cheered the teams on with pom-poms, signs, and other symbols for support.
Then it was game time.
Four fast-paced rounds of play - toss-up, head-to-head, category, and lightning - featured questions ranging from lederhosen to Buddhism, and Jane Austen to Bernie Madoff.
Question card in hand, Costa asked: What element has the symbol “Au’’?
Costa: In 1959, who became the first Soviet head of state to visit the United States?
Answer: Nikita Khrushchev.
However, the players missed questions on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather’’ trilogy, the soap opera “All My Children,’’ and aging Rolling Stone rocker Keith Richards.
Between rounds, Costa (in a nod to “Jeopardy!’’) took a moment to get to know the contestants - but with an unusual twist.
If an alien race observed human behavior for a day, he asked them, what adjectives would they use to describe earthlings?
“Sanguineous, sassy, and omniscient,’’ Pavao replied, taking the opportunity to show off his vocabulary.
Davidson: Swanky, groovy, and carbon-based.
John Russell: Promiscuous, chichi, “smart as heck.’’
In other lags between filming (due to technical issues), stage manager Ron Milton kept the audience busy with dance competitions and sing-offs.
After two rounds of fierce play, Acton-Boxborough ultimately pulled ahead, winning 550 to 270.
Davidson, a clutch player who helped boost his team’s score, was happy with the win and the chance to play again - but ultimately, he has broader challenges in mind. “I want to hopefully clean up the world somehow,’’ said the teenager, who will go to Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania next fall with a goal to study environmental science. “I want to make the world a greener place.’’
Acton-Boxborough will play again on April 15, facing the winner of Sunday’s match between Rockport and Somerville. To follow the competition, visit www.wgbh.org/quizshow.