Selection Bias or Excellence?

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Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by aestheteboy » Thu Nov 24, 2011 4:32 am

As a high school player, I used to study quizbowl statistics religiously. An item in my weekly tasks was to come to this forum, check the results of every major tournament held that Saturday, and idly speculate how good teams are, how like my team would play against them, who the best players are etc. They were exciting, if vain and childish, times.

Two and half years later, I am interested in high school quizbowl statistics again.
Although 30 powers and 100 ppg are cool, I no longer find them particularly fascinating. What I find so interesting is a simple fact - some teams are great, year after year. For whatever reason, I didn't think that particular fact was all that amazing; now that I think about it, it's very peculiar. Teams like State College, Dorman, Maggie Walker, and Thomas Jefferson - perhaps few other schools deserved to be mentioned - are so consistenly good that I can't help but ask this question: why?

If I were still in high school, I would have undoubtedly answered that these schools are just lucky; they just tend to have better players because their schools have smart, curious kids and a culture that appreciates intelligence. Based on my personal experience and stories I heard from my peers, I arrogantly felt that coaches play a limited role in the success of high school teams. I now find that explanation unsatisfying. Surely, this phenomenon can't just be about some population being more curious and motivated than others. After all, State College and Dorman are (as far as I know) non-magnet public schools, and I have no reason to think that kids at Stuyvesant or Hume-Fogg are not as bright as kids at the other schools mentioned. A different explanation, which I personally prefer, is that some coaches are excellent, and that these schools are so successful because they have the best coaches in the country.

I am writing to ask for your opinion. On one hand, I find the "coaches" theory more succinct and cohesive; it just explains reality well. On the other hand, I find it unlikely (or at least mysterious), given the kind of off-hands coaching style that great coaches are known for. Perhaps the most reasonable explanation is that neither excellent coaching nor intelligent school population alone are enough for sustained success in quizbowl. Perhaps my assertion that some schools are always good isn't even objectively true. What do you guys think?

(I've always wanted to write an article that combines quizbowl with academic interest, and I am considering writing about this topic. I would probably write about Julie Gittings, Thomas Carlyle, psychology, business, and statistics. Please let me know privately if you would be willing to let me bounce ideas off of you. Thanks!)
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Susan » Thu Nov 24, 2011 11:42 am

After all, State College and Dorman are (as far as I know) non-magnet public schools,
That may be true, but having a big population of professors' kids makes State College pretty different from your average non-magnet public school. (I don't know anything about Dorman.)
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Rococo A Go Go » Thu Nov 24, 2011 12:20 pm

A lot of people like to claim coaches are of little importance, because talented, self-motivating players can band together and go win things on their own. While there may be talented, self-motivating players in some places doing just that, having that happen every year in the same school is impossible. Having a good coach can make any player work to reach their potential. If a good coach's players are very talented they may win championships, and if they aren't as talented they will still be decent on a regular basis just because their coach has made them work to be good, fundamental players of the game.

The best way for players to improve is by studying, practicing on a regular basis, and going to a lot of tournaments. Coaches can influence their players to study, a good coach has good practices set up every week that gets their players quizbowl experience, and will also take them to play as much quizbowl as possible. While having talented players is a huge benefit, any player (including those who are very talented) can make improvement, and having a good coach is key to a player reaching their full potential.

The best example of this in Kentucky is the fact that on a regular basis, average public schools in lesser populated areas compete with the large magnet schools from the state's biggest cities. Dunbar and Manual naturally have good teams every year, but I would credit the consistent success of regular public schools like Madisonville-North Hopkins, Danville, Pikeville, Russell, and Johnson Central to the fact that their coaches have always pushed their players to be the best they can be.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Kouign Amann » Thu Nov 24, 2011 2:38 pm

I would argue that the example of TJ provides an argument that it's not exactly a coach that is necessary. Rather, I contend it's the slightly hazier idea of "institutional continuity." Teams that are successful year after year have people making sure the next year's team is well-prepared not only to win lots of games, but also to do all the logistical things great teams need to do, like getting to tournaments, running tournaments, fundraising for nationals, etc. Coaches are very useful for this role, but TJ has always (or almost always?) done all this without a coach. They succeed by having a lot of talented people training up the next big group of talented people. Institutional continuity ensures that a team can survive a slightly down year and still come back strong.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by ryanrosenberg » Thu Nov 24, 2011 2:47 pm

Prof.Whoopie wrote:I would argue that the example of TJ provides an argument that it's not exactly a coach that is necessary. Rather, I contend it's the slightly hazier idea of "institutional continuity." Teams that are successful year after year have people making sure the next year's team is well-prepared not only to win lots of games, but also to do all the logistical things great teams need to do, like getting to tournaments, running tournaments, fundraising for nationals, etc. Coaches are very useful for this role, but TJ has always (or almost always?) done all this without a coach. They succeed by having a lot of talented people training up the next big group of talented people. Institutional continuity ensures that a team can survive a slightly down year and still come back strong.
I agree with this, and would like to add that having good players will generally breed more good players. If there's a team that gels and does really well together, that creates a model for other players to follow. Whether it's younger siblings or simply other team members, people will be motivated by watching a good player in practice and in tournaments, especially if he/she reaches out to them if they want to improve. Ladue is a good example of this, with Max's improvement spurring Ben on (and, if their recent results are to believed, a whole host of other players).
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Adventure Temple Trail » Thu Nov 24, 2011 2:49 pm

Prof.Whoopie wrote:"institutional continuity."
This is almost exactly what I was about to post. Having a coach for a decade or more, who cares about pyramidal quizbowl and has a long memory as to what works and what doesn't work for getting successful at pyramidal quizbowl (and who can recruit new students to pyramidal quizbowl from a position of adulthood as old teams clear out in a way that high school kids aren't necessarily best at), is one way in which a solid institution can continue itself. It's not the only way, though, as the experience of TJ (or as effectively all continually-successful college quizbowl programs, such as Harvard or UChicago) shows, but having a good coach there for years and years certainly alleviates a lot of the risk of program collapse.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Smuttynose Island » Thu Nov 24, 2011 4:09 pm

Prof.Whoopie wrote: but TJ has always (or almost always?) done all this without a coach.
Back in TJ's heyday when we were winning consecutive national championships, TJ did in fact have a coach, and while the club was still, from what I've heard, largely student driven, I do believe that the loss of our coach is one of the major reasons why TJ has fallen off in the last few years. While I do agree with Diachi that excellent coaching goes far in making these few "elite" programs elite over many years, I think that what really makes or breaks these teams is a combination of coaching and student body. The reason why Dorman is able to perform so well year after year is because they have one of, if not the, best coach in Quizbowl in Eric Huff. Unfortunately for Dorman, their school doesn't have this academic culture that may exist at other schools (Dorman has around 4000 students and a significant portion of them do not graduate). Because of this, eventhough Dorman is able to recruit strongly motivated students and have an excellent coach, the number of national championships that they have won is rather low. If we look at TJ, especially in recent years, the opposite is true. TJ, while lacking a coach, has one of the most academically orientated student bodies in the country. Not only that, but TJ has excellent teachers, which can go far in giving students baseline knowledge that can make the transition to the top of the proverbial QB pyramid that much easier. Sadly, after the loss of our coach, individual student drive hasn't been enough to keep winning TJ national championships, as other schools have been able to catch up to TJ. Finally if we examine both State College and Maggie Walker, we find a combination of a, in the case of State College potentially, academically centered student body and great coaching. Both State College and Maggie Walker had/have excellent coaches who, at the very least, were able to maintain a sense of program continuity as well as support for their players. Both of these schools are also able to draw upon highly motivated students (Maggie Walker being a magnet school and State College having a large number of professor's children) and, I suspect, great/good teaching. By combining great coaching and highly motivated students, along with this academic culture, State College and Maggie Walker have become, arguably, the most successful of the four schools that I've examined, at least when it comes to the production of national titles and ability to maintain a top 5 nationally finishing program.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by sir negsalot » Thu Nov 24, 2011 5:06 pm

Based on what I know in the Mid-Atlantic, it seems that just about every instance of a consistently active team for more than 4 years can be attributed to either "institutional continuity" (eg TJ or RM) or a coach (eg Blair or CR). These are things that are present in just about all other legitimate activities/sports no matter how competitive the team is at a particular school. The only reason there are ever teams at tournaments that don't have one or both of the 2 aforementioned advantages is that a team can consist of as few as 1 or 2 good players.
Something like football requires 30+ players, which means that the overall talent coming in year-by-year averages out and doesn't fluctuate as much as quizbowl. I suppose that's the mystery of how this consistency at the top comes about.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Francis the Talking France » Fri Nov 25, 2011 10:43 pm

I'm willing to believe that a team's consistency to be good is largely due to the fact that the team's players study hard and well and are at least helped in some way by a coach or adviser. Also, the teams that seem most consistently good are the ones that have consistent A through D teams going to tournaments, and those same kids know their roles and are studying what they want to know and know they will know once they have studied. The best teams in North Carolina send the same four kids (or less) to compete on their A team and the best player or best 2 players on the A team will usually outplay most of the field. I think it is pretty clear that the teams that play the most and send the most teams usually have better results.

At my school, I'm the only player who has went to every tournament, because I'm president and I enjoy it. We usually send one team, and last year it was hard for us to even have a full team. The players on the team are never the same four and there is no consistent strategy for us besides "if you know it, then buzz." Now I'm not saying I'm at all good, but it's easy to notice a vast improvement from my first tournament last year until the tournament I played at last weekend at Duke only because I go to everything that my school attends.

tl;dr: The best and most consistently good teams are ones that can continuously field teams of players who are passed down skills and study tools from players before them that were good at quiz bowl. Also, coaching doesn't hurt in the long run, but TJ has proven their success without coaching.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Rufous-capped Thornbill » Fri Nov 25, 2011 10:54 pm

I think the base question here is, "how do teams become good year after year without a down year?" And as this is a topic I've thought about a lot as I've tried to get South Range (my high school) back into the top echelon of Ohio, I'd like to chime in.

I think a really good place to look when asking this question is Texas. In the past 4 or 5 years, two programs, LASA and Seven Lakes, have come from absolutely no where to become national powerhouses who can rebuild and reload year after year (Not to shut out Cistercian from this category, but IIRC they've been around for a while).

I really like using these two schools as an example because they really came from zero, nothing, and have established themselves as a force. And what do they have in common? They are both schools in good school districts in fairly large, fairly affluent communities, and they both have incredibly dedicated and experienced coaches. These two factors, when combined, will (in my opinion) almost guarantee a competitive quizbowl team year after year after year. If you have one and not the other, you'll have very inconsistent histories with good years followed by bad.

Of course, there are also those teams that are driven by dedicated players alone, and those teams will be very good, but if the question deals with the consistency that is found in a State College or a Dorman, then I believe that those two factors mentioned abvove are the key.

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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by DumbJaques » Mon Nov 28, 2011 3:44 am

These discussions inevitably end up focusing on the macro issues (coaching/"institutional continuity," student body demographics, school quality, recruiting approaches, etc.), but I actually think that there's much more happening on the "micro" level than really gets considered. I mean, think about it - you learn how to play quizbowl from other quizbowl players, by watching and talking to them and asking questions and whatnot. The reality is that 3 or 4 years of reps surrounded by top players is going to make you a hell of a lot better at quizbowl, just factoring in the strictest measurables ("hey, write this down," "that's going to come up a lot," "that's important, you need to know A, B, and C about it," etc.). You also just have to reach a certain level of quality to even expect to compete at practice against good teammates.

This isn't as pronounced an effect in college, in part because the best people can stick around for a lot longer than four years, the canon is much larger, and about eleventy billion smaller reasons not worth getting into here. But in high school, where well over 50% of the best players are removed from the competition pool every year and knowing 2-3 key facts about something makes you almost guaranteed to get it over most competition, this kind of stuff really adds up. There's also the rather significant fact that having good teammates ahead of you means you've got this tap into information that you wouldn't have otherwise had.

Sure, anyone can study Mishima, it's not like people at Maggie Walker have access to some secret State Department communiques about Tatenokai or something. But pouring over info is labor-intensiv and is very much zero-sum in terms of however much studying time you've got. And you have to work not just to get the info itself but to evaluate what's important for quizbowl (and there's no guarantee you'll be right - in fact, you often will not be, as anyone who's had their first writing efforts critiqued readily finds out). You can cut this whole process mostly out if you've got a teammate who tells you "learn this, this, and this" - you might even be encouraged to read about something you otherwise wouldn't have because one of your teammates recommends Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, or can tell stories in entertaining ways. So not only have you been handed a road map to drastically improving/benefiting from the accrued wisdom of your forerunners, you needed only a fraction of the quizbowl man-hours it would have cost someone else. They are, consequently, free to learn other things/learn about Mishima in significantly deeper and more power-inducing ways. Now multiply that by a thousand, and you'll get an idea of what kind of an impact we're really talking about here.

The most important way this dynamic manifests, though (and in my opinion, the central answer to Daichi's question) is in terms of team culture. If you come up on a team where nobody does anything other than sleepwalk through practice 2-4 hours a week and go to the occasional tournament, then that's your reality. That's how quizbowl norms exist for you, and it generally takes rare individuals (the kind of people who are self-starters or even club-starters, wherever they go) to emerge from that and change it. The odds that you're going to get more than one of those in a four-year "generation" are extraordinarily small. And even then, if your team culture blows hard enough, you might drive them away from the game - at least for as long as they're at your school. So while there are people who can overcome negative/neutral team cultures and push them in a better direction, they aren't enough to build a consistent, year-after-year contender.

And, more importantly, they're rare everywhere - it helps to have a magnet program or student demographics like a State College in a broader sense, but people like that by definition aren't reliably found in any population. What's more, take a look at a sample two-year period (2008 and 2009), where the final fours ended up being composed of some combination of TJ, State College, Dorman, Charter, and Whitman. That's 32 seats over two years; like 3 of those were occupied by people who kept on playing after leaving those programs. You fill out lineups with products of your team's system, your team's culture; it's as true of contenders as it is for anyone else. The difference is that when you spend year after year on a team whose culture is to be serious about practice, encourage studying, teach each other about things, and generally be dedicated to what it takes to be successful at a high level. . . well, you almost can't avoid becoming at least a contributor to a contender-level squad.

Coaching continuities, student demographics, and all that stuff are the mechanics of how the above process perpetuates, but innumerable counter-examples demonstrate that nothing is truly essential. Actually, the specific cultures can even be different. State College and Dorman practices are probably pretty disparate experiences but I guarantee the kind of stuff I'm talking about - as well as a general attitude towards learning, improvement, taking things seriously, etc. - is going to be on display. If you're trying to create that kind of program, that's what you should be seeking to cultivate. There's no shortage of teams that have reasonably talented squads every few years, but a failure to create this kind of team culture means that they'll always be sort of isolated events entirely at the mercy of the students you get year to year.



Oh, and as someone who was at least somewhat around then, I don't think TJ's coach had much at all to do with that team's insane run. My conclusion based on interacting with the top players of the brutal three-year period running up to 2005 was that the top guys were pretty much all raging narcissists who absolutely hated the crap out of each other, and thus it was a constant Darwinian struggle over available ppg at practice. This is certainly *a* culture that fosters rapid quizbowl improvement, and it spilled over to the younger players on the team during those years; I mean, do people really think that Charlotte Seid, Scott Ylinen, or Neel Kotra* had some kind of spark that forges great players? Evan Silberman had that for a little while, and it seemed to me like he carried that culture through for the lineups that contended for/won titles in 2008 and 2009. Somewhere along the line that seemed to hit a hiccup - perhaps it's telling that we never see guys like Naren, Keshav, etc. at any college tournaments pretty much at all. So in that respect, I think Daniel may be right about the loss of a coach contributing to TJ's failure to completely match the consistency of a SC or Gov (though come on, it's still a pretty consistent program), just in buffering team culture against rougher transitions.

*I should state for the record though, Neel Kotra: Total bro.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Joshua Rutsky » Mon Nov 28, 2011 5:53 pm

I would add to this discussion that regional opportunity and finance play a big role in creating a top-tier program. The first is an absolute necessity if one is to prepare for national competition; in Alabama, we have a very limited group of talent, and almost no opportunity to play on mirrored national sets unless we travel to Atlanta--something we can only do occasionally because of the logistics and the time involved, as well as cost. Teams that are both motivated to travel multiple times a month on a regular basis (something my team is not willing to do for a number of reasons, and something I am not able to do because I have a wife and family, too) are going to play more, see better competition, and are going to be consistently better than those who don't. That said, those who play in areas where they will see better competition week in and week out are going to improve by dint of playing those better teams. Even if you don't catch them, you see what you need to do to have a chance to catch them, and that inspires effort and commitment that you can't get from regularly administering beatdowns on weaker programs.

The finance issue has been discussed in a number of places, but it deserves mention here. Good programs get funding. They draw sponsors based on results and history, develop relationships with communities that provide space and staff, and build reputations that draw teams to their events. New programs or struggling programs fight uphill against budget cuts and have to scramble more. Our reward this year for four years of success here in Alabama was a $1000 boost to our budget; that's a huge boon for our team. Other teams won't see $250 as their annual budget. Clearly, we will have an advantage over those teams, as we will be able to enter more events and travel more often.

None of that takes away from the major factor that has been cited, which is the drive of the team members. I completely agree with those upthread who say that team culture is vital to the success of future efforts. There's a great sign in my dentist's office that reads "There is nothing the doctor can do that will overcome what the patient will NOT do." A coach, however good, can only motivate so far; at that point, the players need to decide the level of commitment they are going to bring to the team. Seeing a varsity squad that studies, reads packets, and constantly works to improve makes a JV understand the expectations of the program in a way a coach cannot.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Howard » Mon Nov 28, 2011 8:13 pm

I think nearly every post in this thread has hit on important points.

First and foremost, no program can be good without students willing to work toward that program being good. Looking back at my most successful years, there were very special things about those students that made the program successful.

On the other hand, if I ask myself if they would have done it without me, the answer is probably not. I don't mean this in the sense that there was anything extraordinary about me, but more that I worked well together with them, and that if they were left to do things on their own without some push, things would have likely not worked out as well for the team. And I believe it's also true that another coach who put in a reasonable amount of time and effort could have accomplished the same things I accomplished.

At the same time, I can look back and see how I wasn't ready for my first exceptional team. They pushed me to look beyond being passive about which tournaments we entered and to take a more active role in seeking out tournaments to enter. At the same time, I can now look back and see where I could have done some things better. Several years ago, TJ had this magnificent idea of entering a collegiate tournament. I had never even thought of such a thing when TJ did this, but looking back, that would have been the next step I should have taken with my best teams. There is no question it would have helped their development rather than having them stagnate to some degree for a year or two. (This isn't meant to imply that this is a good idea for a majority of teams or a majority of my teams).

Looking at the statistical probability of numerous schools being good year after year based on luck, we see that luck isn't such a good explanation. Magnet schools and certain demographics can explain why there might be a certain talent or culture for learning in a particular school, but what about those places where we don't have particularly affluent parents or a core of educator-parents. Chris hits on the excellent point of team culture. There are many ways team culture can manifest itself. I think the most common situation is that a coach remains present at a school for a long period of time, and that coach is what keeps the culture constant over the years as students come and go. But there's also no reason why students cannot keep this culture going. I think this would be much more difficult to achieve in a run-of-the-mill school district. The cases I know where students have been able to keep such a culture are indeed in magnet-school and affluent environments; i.e. a situation where a culture of learning has already started at home. And I know of one particular case where a team's culture has largely been maintained by the parents.

As long as we have a group of students that's willing to work at learning (and I assert that there is such a group at nearly every high school in the country), all we need is some mechanism to keep the team culture going.

In my experience watching TJ, this culture has been present among the students themselves for many years. But it's also my observation that the team was at its best when they had active adult guidance. From my perspective, Ms. Kreloff deserves much of the credit for taking a great team and making it greater.
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by tintinnabulation » Fri Dec 16, 2011 3:30 pm

The question of how great teams and programs come to be has been on my mind a lot lately. I'd like to be able to coach a team in the future, and the question I've been pondering is: how in the world do you build a program? There are schools that return a great team year after year, and I know they don't return great teams because they get lucky and have natural talent in their school every year. Natural talent that happens to cover all major topics, that is.

Even if you have a couple very talented players, you have to get enough interest and motivation going that the mediocre players will transform themselves into good players and the good players will transform themselves into great players and the great players will transform themselves into even better players. I don't know how you would get that kind of motivation going.

Seeing good competition would help. I know I love to see great teams and go, "There are people who have the ability to play like that. I want to play like that." Having people on your team who are excited about it would help--the aforementioned "team culture." But where can you go from there? Do you just have the players write questions and quiz and study every day? Assuming they even do it, I'm sure there will be plenty of players who would get fed up and quit. How do you foster a love for QB that will motivate students to build a school's program?
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Re: Selection Bias or Excellence?

Post by Howard » Fri Dec 16, 2011 9:49 pm

tintinnabulation wrote:There are schools that return a great team year after year, and I know they don't return great teams because they get lucky and have natural talent in their school every year. Natural talent that happens to cover all major topics, that is.
I'm of the belief that all schools have natural talent and can make a respectable team. Only a certain percentage will have enough to be national contenders year after year-- community culture, socioeconomic effects, magnet programs all play a role-- but nearly every school should be able to put together a respectable team.
tintinnabulation wrote:Seeing good competition would help. I know I love to see great teams and go, "There are people who have the ability to play like that. I want to play like that." Having people on your team who are excited about it would help--the aforementioned "team culture." But where can you go from there? Do you just have the players write questions and quiz and study every day? Assuming they even do it, I'm sure there will be plenty of players who would get fed up and quit. How do you foster a love for QB that will motivate students to build a school's program?
It's been my experience that the number one thing students like about quizbowl is actually playing the game. So that's my primary advice-- just go play games. If there aren't that many tournaments near you, set up practices to resemble games in the format of your choice. Students that quit at this point weren't really interested in quizbowl anyway.

As to making the team great, you'll need to sort out what will work best with the students you've accumulated, which may vary from time to time. Do you need to integrate learning (beyond playing and discussing questions) into practices? Do you assign topics for learning on the students' own time? Do you allow the students to go in their own direction?

One of the critical things I like to remember is that students largely participate in this activity for enjoyment. If we ever take away the enjoyment, the team will suffer.

I know several here will disagree with my approach, and I do not think it's necessarily the best idea for anyone but me, but I tend to follow the "own direction" approach. Each of my students is welcome to set their own goals, and I advise them on how to work on their own to achieve those goals. While this is less effective for students who aren't well-motivated on their own, it does serve the important purpose of teaching students about goal setting.

To determine what will work best for you as a coach, it'd be my recommendation to see what works well for you (and for other teams) while you're still a student and then incorporate those things into how you approach a team you're leading.
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Coach, Howard High School Academic Team
Ellicott City, MD

"John Gilbert is a quiz bowl god" -- leftsaidfred

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