Brains behind Fresno Co. Academic Decathlon powers University, Hallmark will meet again at state

When Mason Hernández strolls through the University High campus, nested at Fresno State, he can’t help but notice the display case of Fresno County championship trophies the school’s academic decathlon teams have harvested since 2010.

“We all get a very big sense of pride,” said the 16-year-old junior last Saturday (Feb. 3) while waiting for the awards ceremony for the 42nd annual Fresno County Academic Decathlon at Sunnyside High School.

“It really just shows what our culture is, and what our school is all about,” said Hernández. “This is what this team is all about, and how we need to add to this collection. We want to make this legacy last as long as possible.”

Alysha Hernández of Hallmark Charter reacts after getting a bronze medal in language & literature at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.
Alysha Hernández of Hallmark Charter reacts after getting a bronze medal in language & literature at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.

Hernández and his academic decathlon teammates got their wish: A fifth straight championship, and 12th overall. Plus, a trip to the March 22-24 state competition in Santa Clara.

It wasn’t smooth sailing, however, for the team representing a charter school of about 400 students. Even smaller Hallmark Academy, with 160 students, put a scare into the four-time defending champions who had enjoyed winning margins of 7,000 points during their winning streak.

Hallmark tied University for first in the Super Quiz, the only event of 11 that is open to the public: 4,060 points.

In the end, University won with 42,432.5 points to Hallmark’s 41,553. Design Science was third with 34,391.8 points.

Trisidy Florez of Hallmark Charter reacts during the awarding of interview medals at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.
Trisidy Florez of Hallmark Charter reacts during the awarding of interview medals at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.

Thursday, Hallmark got word it got an invitation to the state event. The school finished fifth last year when it returned to the competition following an 11-year break for coach Angela Ballew who took the time to be with her school-aged children.

“It inspired me to join the team”

Here’s what the brains behind the competition thought.

Hernández hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering after growing up watching his dad work on a farm. “I just want to follow in his footsteps and just develop new technologies for agriculture,” he said.

The junior, in his first year on the team, contributed 6,48.2 points (good for one of three, overall third-place individual awards).

“I saw videos of past academic decathlon teammates winning, and just seeing the joy on their faces and seeing how they bubble in answer,” said Hernández. “It inspired me to join the team.”

Being on the team “is very rigorous,” he said.

Valerie Pham of Clovis High spoke about the loss her her cat for his first-place speech at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.
Valerie Pham of Clovis High spoke about the loss her her cat for his first-place speech at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Hernández. “You have to put in the hours. You’re disappointed only if you don’t put in the hours.”

If you do that, he said, “you really reap the benefits.”

He enjoyed the atmosphere of the Super Quiz. “It was more exhilarating than a football game. I really liked the environment,” he said.

Sophomore classmate Madeline Hu is no stranger to the competition. She placed second overall last year. Saturday, she improved on her score by almost 400 points to claim the best individual score with 8,842.6 points.

Canfield, who has an encyclopedic memory of the Fresno County event, said that is a record for a sophomore in the competition.

Hu joined the University team “to give myself a challenge, and to just try something new besides just plain old high school.”

José Jiménez, Zaki Armas and Joseph Yang of Sunnyside High react to a correct answer during the Super Quiz at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.
José Jiménez, Zaki Armas and Joseph Yang of Sunnyside High react to a correct answer during the Super Quiz at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.

Economics was an area she wanted to improve upon from last year. Mission accomplished: Hu picked up a gold medal with 800 points after getting a bronze medal last year in that subject.

Hu picked up three other gold medals (science, art and music), three silvers and one bronze out of 10 categories. She credits University’s success to “team effort.”

Being the team everyone wants to beat was “like pressure on us, but it just motivates us to keep on doing our best,” she said.

“We love University High”

Hallmark Academy, which moved from Division III to Division I this year, was led by Jashan Narain (7,702.4 points) and Nadia Jones (7,421.3 points).

“I went in with more confidence. I really studied and tackled the work this year,” said Trisidy Florez, a senior who has been at Hallmark Academy since the first grade.

Clovis East competitors Gurleen Kaloty, Nova Rogers and Christian Castillo react to a correct answer during the Super Quiz at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.
Clovis East competitors Gurleen Kaloty, Nova Rogers and Christian Castillo react to a correct answer during the Super Quiz at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.

Florez welcomed the competition against University. “It gives us a lot of motivation. We get to work towards something; work to beat someone,” she said.

Having a team like University as a rival.

“We love University High, but they are really our biggest competitors,” said Florez. “We really do want to fight for that first place.”

Florez wants to study child psychology in college.

Florez jumped up and down on the stage often during the awards ceremony as she got several medals and watched teammates do well.

“I think we did a lot better since it was brand new to us last year,” said Nadia Jones, a junior who participated last year. “We have some people who have done it before, and they were able to teach the new students.”

Malia Walker of Coalinga High reacts after a correct answer in the Super Quiz at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.
Malia Walker of Coalinga High reacts after a correct answer in the Super Quiz at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.

Jones, who hopes to be a family lawyer or major in English literature and be a teacher, called University High “definitely intimidating.”

“But, they deserve everything that they win; and, we’re going to deserve everything we win,” said Jones.

“It will take a lot of hard work and focus and dedication to the team” to beat University, said Jones.

Photo gallery of 130 photos: facebook.com/vidaenelvalle

Joel Abels, content specialist with the Fresno County Office of Education, served as emcee for the awards ceremony at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.
Joel Abels, content specialist with the Fresno County Office of Education, served as emcee for the awards ceremony at the 2024 Fresno County Academic Decathlon on Feb. 3, 2024 at Sunnyside High School.