New Orleans is on the mind of six Hannibal High School Academic Team members, along with a wide range of knowledge on subjects from science to history to pop culture.

Team Coach Amy Sternke said the group of 15 students reflects a diverse group of competitors with particular areas of strength, like science or history. Varsity Team Captain Gavin Booth has been a part of the team each year and has helped Sternke as the team practiced for each competition. Booth said the season’s start was “a little rocky,” but things quickly turned around with a strong performance at South Shelby R-IV High School that qualified the team for Nationals competition in New Orleans.

“Our first tournament of the new season, we just came out and we worked really well as a team,” he said. “We ended up getting second place at that tournament — that was the best that we had done all season — and that was a really proud moment.”

Sternke agreed that the competition marked a significant milestone.

That tournament was the first time that two HHS Academic Teams ended up in the finals round. With several incoming seniors joining the team, Sternke said the team could be divided into an A Team, B Team and even a C Team.

Sternke said one of the key skills the students are improving with is buzzing in early once they knew the answer. There is a bonus period during the beginning section of each question — a correct answer can result in additional points, but an incorrect response will could result in a drop in the team’s score. She said the team members have always possessed a great deal of knowledge, and they’re been getting faster with buzzing in before the bonus time passes.

“It’s hard to overcome self-doubt, because when you start out, you’re scared to ring in and be wrong and ruin the opportunity for your team,” Booth said. “Just getting past that is a challenge in itself.”

First-time member, sophomore Xavier Pociask, said he feels excited about the coming trip to New Orleans, which felt like a “far-off goal” at the beginning of an exciting season.

“At the beginning, most everybody knew each other, and those who didn’t fit in pretty well very quickly,” he said. “We’ve become a sort of culture of our own, I suppose.”

“We’re an interesting bunch,” Sternke said with a smile.

Booth and Pociask joined Donovan Mefford in attaining individual top 10 scores. The team achieved several strong showings on the road to Nationals — in addition to the strong performance at South Shelby High School, the students were awarded fifth place in Hallsville, fourth place in Mexico, second place during Conference competition and third place in Districts.

As Nationals draw closer, Sternke said each of the six Nationals Team members — Booth, Mefford, Pociask, Clayton Sims, Jessica Stinson and Ruby Roisum — have certain areas where they are especially strong. And the New Orleans competition will be unlike some traditional Quiz Bowls, featuring music clips to identify by sound and artwork to identify by sight and other non-traditional sections to go along with academic topics.

Booth said he feels a mix of emotions like excitement and some sadness that this will be his last year with the team he’s been a part of since his freshman year. And he appreciated the chance to take on his leadership role throughout the season.

“At first it was kind of daunting, but I feel like I’ve grown a lot in my senior year,” he said. “And I really enjoyed being the leader of the team and helping motivate the underclassmen — trying to get them to study more and develop as players, so the team is stronger when I’m gone.”

“Gavin has been incredibly helpful to me this year — he very much steps up and has taken on a lot of responsibility for me this year,” Sternke said.

For example, Booth helped organize the team’s recent Trivia Night at HHS, which netted more than $1,100 for the trip to New Orleans, which is planned for Friday, May 25 to Monday, May 28. Sternke said team members wrote the questions and answers, and Booth was the main question writer and editor for the event. Students are also selling cheesecakes to help raise funds.

As the Nationals Team members gather for extra practices, study at home and prepare for their big trip, Sternke shared in their enthusiasm for the opportunity to display their mettle on a national scale.

“We’ve spent almost our entire season playing mostly Missouri teams,” she said. “It will be nice now to see how we stack up against teams from all the other states.”

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com