The band played Thursday, and the kids screamed. Twenty-one slightly embarrassed youths in dress shirts, ties and dresses filed onto the stage in the auditorium of Mesa’s Stapley Junior High School.
They didn’t know more than 400 of their peers, including the marching band, would greet them upon their return from competing via teleconference in the final round of the National Academic League competition.
They gamely waved the pompoms they’d been handed, after losing the national title to a team from Salt Lake City, but that didn’t change the program at all.
“It’ll be a short but intense welcome-back for them because getting to that level, win or lose, will be an accomplishment. We’ll celebrate,” principal Ken Erickson said.
Ninth-grade team member Josh Lambert, 14, was impressed by the heroes’ welcome. “When you’re smart, it’s hard to get attention, so it really helps,” he said after the assembly.
The seventh- through ninth-graders on the team fought a valiant battle against Brockbank Junior High School at Arizona State University’s Computer Commons in Tempe, nearly pulling even with their Utah rival during a couple of the rounds, but fell in the end, 77 to 58.
“I’m a huge college football fan, so I was comparing it to the Texas-USC game — it was a great game to the final minute,” said Cheryl Stone, the team’s assistant coach and mother of one of the players, Dallin Stone, 15.
She said Dallin had briefly claimed he didn’t have much of an appetite for lunch at Amazing Jake’s following the match, but quickly recovered after the assembly.
“It’s like, we didn’t get first place, but we got second — that works, too,” he said.
The Stapley students were broken into groups to play in four rounds, including one that had to make a presentation about how their community could be educated about handling a flood.
Alex Gregory, 14, said tackling the subject, which was given to them Monday, was a challenge. “We did a lot of research,” she said.
A fifth group of backup players participate in all of the after-school practices, which happen at least twice weekly, but don’t often get to compete.
Ninth-grade backup player Alec Jonas, 14, thinks he’ll still reap the benefits from the National Academic League experience.
“It’ll be good on your résumé, and in high school,” he said.