Just the beginning

Young Panthers squad wins individual, team honors at Academic Decathlon

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Johnston High School students brought several pieces of hardware back home this weekend after winning medals in various individual and team events at this year’s Academic Decathlon state competition.

The school’s six-member Team 2 took second place in the Super Quiz portion of the event, finishing just behind Bishop Hendricken, at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick this past weekend. The squad consisted of captain Tyler Roche, Dana Smyth, Shaheer Jamil, Audry Mahony, Laila Harrington and Mackenzie Hanna.

“It’s so exciting. It’s always a pleasure when you watch a young group work toward a long-term goal,” Johnston coach Kerry Murphy said during a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “There’s so much gratification in watching them make that commitment and place right behind a school like Hendricken, which has such a famous history of success. We’re also very young this year.”

That youth was on display when Hanna, who is only a freshman, received a bronze medal for music in the honors division. Murphy was particularly proud of that accomplishment given the difficulty of the material.

“Music is traditionally a really tough category for our students,” Murphy said. “Really challenging, rigorous curriculum. For her to get a medal as a freshman is amazing. It’s a sign of things to come.”

The success didn’t stop there for the Panthers. Mahony took home a silver medal for social science in the honors division, while Smyth captured a silver for interview in the scholastic division.

Kelly Sigui and Mahony were both awarded medals for achieving the highest overall scores on Teams 1 and 2, respectively. The Panthers finished sixth overall in the competition.

“They’re amazing individuals,” Murphy said. “It’s truly a pleasure to work with students that are so appreciative of what they get from each other as well as us. I think there’s a social aspect to Academic Decathlon that might not be what people talk about.”

Murphy, who has coached the team for four years alongside Debra Smyth, said that camaraderie has been vital to the team’s success. She said the main challenge they have had to overcome throughout the year is student involvement in other activities.

Despite that, Murphy said the group has done well at managing its time and remaining dedicated to the Decathlon.

“I think the fact that our students are a really well-rounded group who are very involved in the school community has presented challenges in terms of finding the time to work together as a team,” Murphy said. “Many of them have to prioritize and split their time among a number of important school initiatives. It’s a lot of material to cover, and it’s a very adept group at managing their time.”

Murphy said that team bonding happens “very naturally” as the year progresses. Every year, the students take at least one field trip, and this time around they went to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

The crew gets to vote on which tour theme they want to zero in on, opting to learn more about the Cold War. Murphy said they felt confident in their knowledge on other topics, such as civil rights, and lauded them for “looking to round out their education experience.”

“The students really become educators in their own right,” Murphy said. “Sure, we teach sometimes, but the students really do take leadership roles. Not just the seniors, not just the captains and co-captains, but we try to make sure there are opportunities for them to develop confidence in that group.”

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