Saturday’s 23rd annual High School Mathematics Contest, a Super Bowl of numbers at Westmont College, offered almost as much high drama and suspense as the real Super Bowl. That might be a slight exaggeration — but it did boast two late comebacks, a delay of game and even a game-changing, false-start penalty. What more could a lover of sports — or math — ask for?

Some of the best and brightest mathletes from 10 Southern California high schools converged on Westmont’s campus Saturday to kick some algebra and take some numerals. The schools represented in the competition were Dos Pueblos, Cate, Crescenta Valley, Santa Barbara, San Marcos, Thacher, San Roque, Oaks Christian, Bishop Diego and Providence Hall.

The competition was split into two divisions — ninth- and 10th-graders, and 11th- and 12th-graders — with four students on each team, for a total of eight students per school.

The preliminary events included a written section, where each team had about 90 minutes to solve five math questions; “chalk talk,” where one team member gave a PowerPoint presentation about a predetermined topic (this year’s topic was “prime numbers”); and a college bowl format, where two teams competed against each other, and team members buzzed in with their answers.

It all may sound fairly basic, but there is a metric ton of work that goes into preparing for the event each year.

Russell Howell, a 32-year veteran of Westmont’s Mathematics Department and the architect of the competition for the past 23 years, spends weeks sending e-mails to high schools, designing T-shirts and formulating original questions (140 total) for the different portions of the competition.

“It’s very time-consuming,” Howell said. “The last two weekends especially, it’s pretty much all I did. But I’ve done it for 23 years, and it has always run smoothly. I’ve been teaching here since I was 5, by the way.”

Five Westmont faculty members and more than 20 student volunteers came together to make sure the day ran smoothly. After the preliminary events concluded, it was time for the big show. The top two teams in each division from the college bowl earlier in the day competed in a final college bowl showdown, as the rest of the participants, parents, coaches and staff members looked on.

The ninth- and 10th-graders went first, with Thacher facing off against San Marco High. With 12 minutes on the clock, geometry and algebra questions were asked until time ran out. Despite a noble effort by the San Marcos Royals, Thacher posted a huge prime number on the big board for a decisive 17-0 victory.

Ninth- and 10th-graders from Thacher and San Marcos high schools face off in the college bowl finals, but the game was later nulled after it was determined that Thacher should have competed against Dos Pueblos in the event

Ninth- and 10th-graders from Thacher and San Marcos high schools face off in the college bowl finals, but the game was later nulled after it was determined that Thacher should have competed against Dos Pueblos in the event. (John Conroy photo /

However, as the 11th- and 12th-graders prepared to take the stage, there was a surprise announcement. Someone had apparently switched the results from the two divisions, meaning the ninth- and 10th-graders from Thacher should have competed against the students from Dos Pueblos, not San Marcos. False start, five-yard penalty, repeat first down!

So, after thumping the Royals and believing they had won the final, the Thacher juggernaut was forced to take the stage again.

Thacher jumped out to a quick lead, going up 4-0 against Dos Pueblos. But Dos Pueblos came roaring back to pull off the 7-4 upset in the final seconds.

Next, the 11th- and 12th-graders from Thacher faced the 11th- and 12th-grade team from San Marcos, determined to avenge the earlier drubbing of their classmates. With two minutes remaining in the competition, Thacher was hanging on to an 8-6 lead. The Royals rallied late in the game and took the title with a final score of 10-8.

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider was on hand for the competition and said a few words of encouragement afterward.

“I never knew a math competition could have intrigue, and surprise — and high drama,” she said jokingly. “Keep it up. This really is a fascinating way to prepare to reach your full potential someday.”

The theme of the competition was “prime numbers.” A prime number is a natural number that has exactly two natural number divisors: 1 and itself. Since 23 is a prime number, Howell thought it would be an appropriate theme for the 23rd year of the competition.

Daniel Petersen, a member of the San Marcos math team, explained during his chalk talk that the number 1 is not a prime number, since it has only one natural number divisor — itself — and therefore doesn’t meet the criteria for a prime number.

But on Saturday, all of the winners in their respective events considered 1 to be pretty prime — regardless of what their math professors say.


Chalk Talk

First: Elizabeth Garfinkle, San Roque
Second: Daniel Petersen, San Marcos

Ninth- and 10th-Grade College Bowl

Dos Pueblos — Anthony Granatelli, Daniel Richman, Daniel Gay and Vy-Luan Huynh

Ninth- and 10th-Grade Written

Bishop Diego — Andre Kohansamad, Nic Mon, Michael Winnewisser and Benjamin Helke

11th- and 12th-Grade College Bowl

San Marcos — Amy Ransohoff, Johnny Manzo, Daniel Peterson and Matt Welsh

11th- and 12th-Grade Written

Thacher — Ricky Yun, Tina Yun, Trevor Mulchay and Scott Lee

Ninth- and 10th-Grade Overall Points

Thacher — Josh Cho, Sarah Cresto, Sottyun Park and Lucy Han

11th- and 12th-Grade Overall Points

Thacher — Ricky Yun, Tina Yun, Trevor Mulchay and Scott Lee

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.