First, they took down Washington in the Sweet 16. Then it was on to Missouri in the Elite Eight. Finally, they beat Utah in the Final Four. Next week, the students of Mesa's Stapley Junior High School team will move on to a showdown with Pennsylvania for the National Academic League championship.
If the Stapley students win, they'll make history for the school and join a short list of those who have achieved the top honor. They will also take their place among a group of academic champions in the Mesa Unified School District.
Mesa schools have been a powerhouse in academic competitions this year. Mesa students collected a dozen gold and silver medals at the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair. The Dobson High School team brought home first place in the state in the "We the People" contest, a competition that focuses on the U.S. Constitution, organized as a congressional hearing. Mountain View, Red Mountain, Westwood and Skyline high schools took first, third, sixth and seventh, respectively, in the state Academic Decathlon, a rigorous competition where students are tested in 10 categories, including art, economics, language and literature, mathematics and science.
Coaches say encouragement - which can sometimes feel like pressure - to bring home a title for the district is at least part of what's behind the winning record.
Some of that pressure comes from Superintendent Debra Duvall, who has taken a special interest in the academic competitions.
"They are like athletes in many ways, but excelling in different areas. For many years, athletics has received a lot of publicity, but the purpose for which school districts exist is for academic achievement," Duvall said. "To be recognized for that just underscores our purpose."
She says there is a formula for success at such endeavors.
"That formula is dedication, hard work and teamwork, on the part of the students, the teachers and the parents," she said.
Mountain View academic decathlon coach Curt Canaday would add one word to that formula: fear.
He recalls a meeting with Duvall regarding the team about seven years ago.
"She said, 'You know what, Mesa really is the best, regionally. When we go to a competition that is academic-based, we should win it. So, how do we do that?' " he said. "So, out of fear, we've just been afraid to do anything other than that."
Mountain View has won the state title 14 of the last 18 years. The team will vie for the national title at a competition in Florida later this month.
Canaday related the story about Duvall in a joking way at a recent governing board meeting where the academic decathlon teams were honored. But the idea behind the story - that Mesa should win and that students and coaches are strongly encouraged by the administration to do so - is fostered among the many academic teams.
Canaday and other coaches also say the principals and staff at the various schools add support.
Dan Phan, the academic decathlon coach at Westwood, said he has been on the receiving end of much encouragement over the six years the school has been building its program.
"The superintendent always has our backs," he said.
Duvall said the administration does what it can to provide support materials, trips and other resources to maximize the information available to the students as they prepare to compete. But she said winning goes far beyond the administration.
"The coaches take their responsibility to the kids seriously," she said. "And the youngsters put in many hours."
Mary Evans, the coach of Stapley's academic league team, said that while she hasn't heard a lot of encouragement from the district offices, she receives overwhelming support from the teachers and principals at her school.
She's looking forward to the national event and the chance for her students to join the ranks of Mesa's national champions.
"These are bright, gifted and talented kids who have put in a lot of time, at the expense of doing a lot of other things," she said. "We could not be more proud of them."