By Sarah Naron
Messenger Reporter

GRAPELAND – After returning home on Friday and taking the weekend to wind down from the whirlwind which accompanied their participation in the National Invitational Quiz Competition at the 91st National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, IN, the FFA quiz teams of Grapeland High School took time to speak to The Messenger about their experience and excitement over once again being national quiz team champions.

“It’s hard to get these kids the recognition they deserve,” said Gary Graham, GHS Ag Director. “What they’ve done has never been done before, I can tell you that.”

Each of the three teams representing Grapeland in last week’s competition enjoyed national championship victories, and many of the students walked away with individual honors as well.

The team consisting of seniors Amy Crook, J.D. Martin and Taylor Pennington were named the national champions, while the team made up of juniors Keke Harris, Cayden LeBlanc and Madi McCombs took third place and the team of junior Cadie Currie, senior Mark Hanna, junior Preslie Reynolds and junior Mary Jane Watson placed fifth.

The quiz team consisting of Amy Crook, J.D. Martin and Taylor Pennington was named national champions. Photo by Sarah Naron/ Messenger.

Last week’s national championship win was the fifth secured by Grapeland FFA over a period of six years. After celebrating first-place wins from 2013-2015, the team placed second in 2016 before returning to the top spot in 2017.

When asked if they expected to win at this year’s competition, the students spoke of how insecure they felt after completing their tests.

“I was not confident,” Pennington said. “I would not look at the key.”

“I got out of the thing, and I was like, ‘Mr. Graham, I think I made, like, a low 90,’” Crook recalled. “I started going through the key, and I was like marking – ‘Oh, got that one wrong. Got that one wrong. Got that one wrong.’ I got 12 questions wrong in, like, the first 47, and I was like, ‘Here, take the key.’”

According to Graham, Martin has been participating on the senior team since he was in the eighth grade.

“At the time, I needed one more person on the senior team,” Graham recalled. “Because his sister was on that team, I thought maybe she could help him study at home. So, I put him there as an eighth grader, and he’s been there ever since.”

As a result, Graham said, Martin has participated on four national champion teams and one reserve champion team.

“He’s always been in the top 10 individuals for five years,” Graham said.

According to Graham, Crook was the highest-scoring individual during last year’s competition and was just one point shy of repeating that victory this year.

Pennington was the highest-scoring individual, while Crook took second place. McCombs earned sixth place overall, Harris was awarded eighth place and Martin took ninth.

As Pennington explained, quiz team participants are required to familiarize themselves with a 98-page FFA manual prior to arriving at the competition.

“When we get there on Tuesday, we take a 100-question test from cover to cover of that book,” she said.

According to Preslie Reynolds, the manual covers “basically anything that’s happened in FFA ever – like, since the beginning, up until now.”

In addition to history, students must be knowledgeable on topics such as bylaws, officer duties during various ceremonies, and degree requirements of different programs.

“They’ve even been asked the address, telephone number and zip code of the offices,” Graham shared. “They get very nit-picky.”

While the students are given an unlimited amount of time in which to complete the test, many of the Grapeland FFA students reported their testing time to be an hour or less.

“It depends on how much you studied,” said Cayden LeBlanc, drawing agreement from the rest of the students.

“And, like, your confidence level,” added Reynolds, who estimated that she spent 45 minutes to an hour on her test. “I overthink things, so I like to take it slow.”

Preparation for the competition begins even before the commencement of a new school year, the students revealed.

“We study over the summer, and then, Mr. Graham starts giving us written tests – his famous tests – on the first day of school,” Pennington explained.

While the tests administered by Graham are fill-in-the-blank, the test taken by the students at the competition are multiple choice.

Certain areas of the test – such as history and membership – change from year to year as new laws are passed and membership grows.

Graham explained that 49 teams – each consisting of four students – competed at this year’s senior level.

“Out of the top 13 individuals, we had seven of them from Grapeland,” he said. “Mary Jane was 13th, and there were 17 points separating 13 places. So, it’s really tough; it’s to a point you don’t want to miss a question, because one or two questions can put you down several places.”

Graham added that LeBlanc came in 12th place individually, falling short of first place by only 15 points.

Among the most impressive aspects of the students on each team, Graham said, is their work ethic.

“They will work, they will study, they will prepare and they don’t need a lot of pushing,” he said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve pushed these guys for a long time. They’ve been with me since they were in junior high. I have high expectations of this bunch, and they know it, but they’re capable of it.”

Graham spoke of the students’ tireless dedication to the final preparations made for the test.

“They never quit,” he said. “They never said, ‘Hey, I need to go take a break for 30 minutes,’ or, ‘I want to go do something else,’ or, ‘Can we stop for an hour?’ They started that morning, and right up until the time they were eating lunch, they were still studying. They never left, they never wanted to leave, they never complained – nothing.”

Graham expressed his hope that GISD and the Grapeland community as a whole will take pride in the effort put forth by the teams.

“These guys represented this chapter and this school and this community in the most professional way they possibly could,” he said.

According to Graham, the students receive “nothing but compliments” while attending competitions and events.

“They’re the best people to travel with,” he said. “They’re the best people for an example of how our kids at this school should be. They’re the best. This bunch right here is second to none, as far as I’m concerned.”

Sarah Naron may be reached via email at snaron@messenger-news.com.