Gate City academic team wins district, region, is runner-up at state

Holly Viers • Apr 20, 2020 at 9:00 AM

GATE CITY — The Gate City High School academic team is coming off one of its most successful years in program history.

For the first time, the team took home two district titles this year, along with the region title. It also finished in second place in VHSL state competition after finishing fourth and third the last two years.

“The growth of our players was tremendous,” said Sarah Whisenhunt, one of the team’s coaches. “We’ve been very, very blessed with hardworking kids and supportive families and a supportive administration.”

Meet the team

The team is comprised of captain Kallie Berry, co-captain Shauna Shepard, Ethan Billips, Devan Hoover, Peyton Oakes, Ross Stokes, Hayden Thomas, Sydney Vaughn and Sevan Ford. It is coached by Whisenhunt and Mary Alice McClellan, both teachers at GCHS.

About the team

Gate City’s academic team is open to students in eighth through 12th grades; students from all grade levels except ninth grade were on this year’s team, Whisenhunt said.

The team takes part in VHSL competitions and tournaments against the same schools that Gate City’s athletic teams compete against. It competes in two types of academic events: the VHSL Scholastic Bowl, which consists of two rounds of questions, and Quiz Bowl, which consists of 20 toss-up questions.

The VHSL lightly aligns the questions with topics covered by the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) and with Virginia history and current events. That said, players also must be familiar with a wide range of knowledge outside of those realms.

“One definite benefit of being part of the academic team is that we can go into topics or go into knowledge that is not always taught in the classrooms because of the SOL confinements,” Whisenhunt said. “For example, the amount of literature knowledge — you have to be aware of British literature, American literature, world literature, short stories, poems, novels, et cetera.”

In addition to VHSL events, Gate City’s team also competes against other Southwest Virginia teams as part of the Southwest Virginia Academic Team Alliance (SWATA), a regional Quiz Bowl alliance.

“We started doing some competitions back in 2016 with some schools in the area,” Whisenhunt said, “and then that expanded to having four dedicated Quiz Bowl tournaments during the Scholastic Bowl season on the weekends to offer teams in far Southwest Virginia an opportunity to compete. … Some of the other competitions we’ve gone to are hours away, so this is a chance for students who play during the week in VHSL Scholastic Bowl to have another chance to hone their skills and interact with other kids who are dedicated to this just like they are.”

Racking up accolades

The team finished the year with a district record of 11-1 and an overall record of 21-4. It was also named Mountain 7 District regular season champions, Mountain 7 District tournament champions and Region 2D Champions. Winning both district titles was a first for the program, Whisenhunt said.

“That district tournament title and an outright regular season title had eluded us,” Whisenhunt said, “so that was very special to win, because our district is really, really competitive. … We lost to Abingdon early in the district tournament, and then we had to come out of the losers’ bracket and beat them twice to win. That’s tough, but we did in pretty decisive fashion.”

The team also finished as runner-up at state competition, Whisenhunt added. This was the team’s third trip to state competition in four years.

In addition to the team’s accomplishments, junior Ross Stokes made the all-state team, which is comprised of the top five individual scorers in the state tournament, regardless of VHSL classification. Stokes is the first from Gate City, first from this region and fourth from Southwest Virginia to receive that honor, Whisenhunt said.

Nationals canceled

Whisenhunt said the team was set to finish the year at two national tournaments, one for individuals and one for teams. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both tournaments were canceled.

“Our senior (Kallie Berry) was very excited,” Whisenhunt said, “because we’re still relatively young, and in attending nationals, she was going to be the first Gate City player to attend all four years of her team membership. … So I’ve been trying to remind her, ‘It doesn’t matter that it was postponed. You will be remembered as the first player to intend to go all four years.’ ”

“A place to belong”

Even more than the trophies the team has earned, Whisenhunt said she’s proud of the family-like bond that the team shares.

“In terms of our team, we’re very close-knit,” Whisenhunt said. “The academic programs — we see this in the alliance and we definitely see it with our Gate City team — give kids a place to belong, and it gives them an opportunity to showcase their talents, but also to be recognized and validated by their peers.”

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