Burnaby North Reach For the Top team tops in BC

From left: Li Xue, Ernest Shi and Grace Xiao are among Burnaby North secondary
From left: Li Xue, Ernest Shi and Grace Xiao are among Burnaby North secondary's six-member Reach For the Top team which finished No. 1 in B.C. and No. 3 in Canada against more experienced schools.
— image credit: Mario Bartel/NewsLeader

Burnaby North secondary's Reach For the Top team defied the odds this year, placing first in B.C. and third in Canada against much more experienced competition.

North has Burnaby's only team for the decades-old high school quiz competition. That's compared to Vancouver, which has its own league and regular tournaments.

The North team members compete against themselves, said their sponsor teacher and coach, Gary Suderman.

Yet that in-house sparring was enough to help them win first place in the province, beating out perennial B.C. favourites, St. George's. At the nationals, the North team defeated St. George's again.

"It was awesome," said Grade 12 member Everest Shi, 18, on winning against the prestigious private boys school, which also attended the nationals in Toronto recently as the No. 2 team from B.C.

Shi competed in Toronto along with fellow Grade 12s Chris Chiavatti, David Penco, and Eleanor Hoskins, and Grade 11s Li Xue and Grace Xiao.

Hoskins was also named one of four MVPs at the tournament.

North beat last year's winner from New Brunswick, but ended up losing to the eventual winners this time around, University of Toronto Schools.

North's success didn't come overnight. The core of this year's team has been together for about four years. Their first nationals, they finished 11th and last year, they ended up in fifth before this year's third place showing.

Preparing for the competition can be a challenge in itself since players, who compete four at a time with opportunities to switch off, never know what category of question will get thrown at them.

"Calculating math, thoroughbred horse racing, classical German cinema, basically anything," said Shi.

They spend a lot of time reading and on the Internet, playing online trivia games, said Xue, 16. The private company that now operates Reach For the Top also provides practice packages of questions.

At the nationals, questions they pondered included details about the Bible story of Joseph and the number of career starts for racehorse Secretariat.

Xue did think they were robbed on one question—what's the first thing you do to eggs when making a souffle? A North team member answered, "'crack the eggs,' but they didn't accept that. The right answer was you had to separate the eggs."

There are 600 teams across Canada with "hundreds" of them in Ontario alone, said Shi, who noted those teams are amazingly quick on the buzzer, often answering questions before they're completely read out.

That's one area where North's increasing experience over the years has helped level the playing field somewhat. There's also the students' accumulation of knowledge.

But adding to the challenges the team had to overcome was uncertainty due to teachers' job action.

Suderman said at one point it looked like the team wouldn't be able to attend the national tournament since he was unable to accompany them under the BC Teachers' Federations' ban on teacher involvement in extra-curricular activities.

But in the end, North principal Kevin Brandt made the trip, allowing the team to have its best showing ever.

Suderman couldn't be prouder, noting, "Often even on strong teams it's a one-person show." Not so with North, where each of the six team members has their own specialty, such as Shi with math, Penco with sports, Hoskins with arts and literature, and Chiavatti—a member of the 2009 gold-medal-winning Team Canada at the National Geographic World Championship—with geography.

"I think they're just amazing ambassadors for Burnaby North."

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