Several East Valley high schools are strong contenders in this weekend's Arizona Academic Decathlon competition.
For years, Mesa schools have dominated the decathlon. This year, all six of the Mesa Unified School District's high schools are among the 40 that qualified to take part in Friday and Saturday's championship at Phoenix's Sandra Day O'Connor High School.
Four Mesa schools - Mountain View, Red Mountain, Westwood and Skyline - are in the top 10. Dobson High is ranked No. 11 and Mesa High is ranked No. 15.
But nipping at the heels of the top teams - and vying for top-10 finishes - are Chandler's Hamilton High and Gilbert's Highland High.
In the decathlon, students show off their knowledge and skills in 10 categories: economics, speech, mathematics, language and literature, art, science, music, essay, interview and - the crowd favorite - the Super Quiz Relay, a fast-paced Trivial Pursuit-like competition between teams.
Mesa's Mountain View is ranked No. 1 this year, after scoring 47,305.2 points in the regional competition. Closest to the Toros is Tucson's Canyon Del Oro High School, the defending state champion, with 45,781.3 points.
Chandler's Hamilton High finished 15th last year at state. But this year, the team is only 26.9 points behind third-ranked Red Mountain, which garnered 39,745.4 points at regionals.
"There's such a gap between the top two teams, it's almost a competition for third," said Hamilton coach Carla Ingraham.
But that doesn't mean anyone is ready to settle. Everyone starts with zero points this weekend.
"I dropped one of my classes so I could set aside an hour to study each day," said Red Mountain senior Bri Pantilione, 18.
Individual scores - as well as the team score for Super Quiz - are tallied together to declare a state champion. That team will represent Arizona at the national competition in Omaha, Neb., in April.
Lining the award cases outside Mesa's Mountain View High library are year after year of state Academic Decathlon trophies. The Toros have won state titles six times this decade. Canyon Del Oro has earned three state titles since 2000.
The Mountain View team is a powerhouse. The regional trophy in the team's classroom lists Mountain View over and over again, with a smattering of other team names.
There are eight seniors on the team, two returning from last year. Each school day students arrive at 7 a.m. to meet with a coach. Each Thursday after school they spend three hours studying economics.
And then there's lunch, class time and individual study time. This week, coach Curt Canaday tested the team - using bubble score sheets - on each of the topic subjects.
"It gets pretty intense," coach Joan Snyder said. "They know what they're facing, and they want to defend their school. This is hard work. This is preparing for a state tournament."
But that work has made for a confident team.
"I knew coming in we would have a great team this year," said Alice Lin, 17, one of the returning seniors. "We're really excited because I think we're going to win. There's no way we're not going to win with this team and these coaches."
Across town, Red Mountain High students don't hide their feelings about Mountain View and the "crazy rivalry" the teams have.
"They're difficult to compete with. They keep us humble," said Alex Liu, 17, a senior on the team.
Last year, Red Mountain topped Mountain View at the regional competition - taking the title - and at state, placing second behind Canyon Del Oro.
The team this year has several new faces, with a handful of returning ones.
Pantilione said she joined to "show up" her friends on last year's squad.
"They were getting all these medals and awards," she said. This year, she is the school's top individual scorer.
Liu said he joined Academic Decathlon to enjoy the "team" aspect of the competition.
"You know when teams have the trophy at a restaurant after a competition? I've always wanted to do that. There's nothing quite like embracing certain defeat, then (receiving) a victory," Liu said.
That was the case at this year's regional competition. During the awards ceremony, few individual Red Mountain students received medals. The team thought it didn't fare well. In fact, the second-place finish took them all by surprise.
Hamilton's nine-member team prides itself in not only its accomplishments this year but in its diversity.
Members are from South Africa, Canada, Mexico and India, as well as the United States. One is American Indian.
"The learning and competition are addictive," said Kevin Marquez, 18, a senior.
"We saw where we were last year, and there's that whole drive to get higher and higher, and we pushed the newcomers to work harder and harder," said Shaina Hasan, 16, a junior.
Returning member Colton Wishart, 17, a senior, said this year's team also has a different "mind-set."
"Last year the members were more social," he said. "This year, we're all social, but there's also the learning and the drive."
The team from Gilbert's Highland High has found itself in a happy, unexpected place leading into the state meet. It's ranked No. 6, the first top-10 placing for the school, coach Karen Clayton said.
"They're very excited. They're very proud of themselves, and I think they're also a little surprised," she said.
She credits senior and four-year decathlete Humza Salim for leading the charge this year. He went out and recruited several members of the team. Clayton said she then turned over the preparation work to the students.
"I allow the students to dictate what they want to study, when and how," she said. The teens look at each of the subjects - this year's theme is the French Revolution - and "come up with a game plan to get us through that material by the time that competition happens."
"It really is dependent upon them," she said. "They are the ones who have to study it."