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Knowledge Bowl: Smarts, speed and teamwork = success for local teams

The MVL Black team won the Class A regionals this year and is going to state. MVL Black also won the regionals last year (but the tournament was canceled) and won the state title in 2019. From left, MVL Black members Mark Spengler, Jonah Kramer, Caleb Carlovsky and Emma Niebuhr.

NEW ULM — Why do New Ulm students excel in Knowledge Bowl competitions?

For academic competitions centering around answering questions, determining why a school performs well is a natural question ask.

Knowledge Bowl (KB) is a series of academic quiz competitions held every year around the world. Typically, teams of four to six students compete to answers questions. The rules of the competition can vary by region, but typically the questions are taken from the high school curriculum. The competitions are hosted as tournaments, with the highest point-scoring teams advancing. Unlike sporting events, these competitions are based on what students know rather than their physical abilities.

Over the last few years, The Journal has reported on the continued success of multiple Knowledge Bowl teams from New Ulm. Minnesota Valley Lutheran (MVL) and New Ulm High School (NUHS) teams routinely place high in regional competitions and also reach the state competitions.

A strong educational systems and well-organized teams seem to be the secret. KB coaches Heath Dobberpuhl (MVL) and Robert Bute (NUHS) both cited a strong curriculum and team structure for their success.

MVL Blue competes in a virtual meet. From left, Josh Giefer, Donovan Witte, Josiah Guenther and Ruth Dobberpuhl.

“A strong curriculum does help,” Dobberpuhl said.

Bute said “a strong KB team is an indicator of a well-rounded curriculum.” He thanked NUHS teachers for helping maintain a quality pool of students to draw from for KB.

The questions students face in KB competitions are mostly based on the high school curriculum. A school system that can provide a strong education will naturally give its KB teams a great starting point.

NUHS KB senior Griffin Marti also credited the school staff. “There are a lot of great teachers who help prep us and make it engaging.”

Other NUHS KB team members cite the team focus. Senior Isaac Davis said the teams have a lot of smart students who are committed to the competition. He believes some teams can get bogged down, but NUHS can remain focused.

New Ulm Purple placed second at the regionals this year and is going to state to compete in Class AA. From left, Max Gieseke, Griffin Marti, Isaac Blumhoefer and Dawson Schaefer. Not pictured, Connor Slette, who joined the team online.

Junior Dawson Schaefer said KB is a lot of fun and because it is fun, students do try harder.

Another part of building a competitive KB team is creating a strong team structure. Dobberpuhl said a team needs to be organized to complement one another.

“There are no one-man teams,” he said.

“A good team has a balance,” Bute said. “There is a science and art to creating a team. They need to get along to be a competitive team.”

The balance is achieved by making sure each team has an expert in each area of study.

New Ulm Maroon, from left, Mya Anthony (in dark grey), Josie Ringhofer (center back, in purple), Abby Houg (lower right, in purple) and Isabella Hahn (center bottom, in white hooded shirt), compete in a virtual meet.

“It helps to have students with a diverse set of knowledge,” Dobberpuhl said.

At MVL, teams are organized at the start of the season. All the students involved in Knowledge Bowl are given a 100 question quiz to determine what they know. This helps place them on a team where they are needed, but it also helps identify what type of information a student needs to study.

This also helps the coach identify a team spokesperson. The spokesperson is the individual who provides the answer during oral competition. It is the spokesperson’s responsibility to decide which teammate had the correct answer and present it to the judge.

“They need to look their teammates in the eyes and decide,” Dobberpuhl said. “They’ve got to be great listeners.”

Emma Niebuhr is the spokesperson for one of the MVL teams. She described her role as the voice of the team.

NUHS averages around 30 Knowledge Bowl participants every year. Even in a pandemic year, KB attracted high quality talent.

“The team will be throwing five answers at me and I need to select the best one,” she said.

No one can be an expert in any one subject, but Niebuhr said it is her job to know which teammate best knows a particular subject.

Niebuhr said her specialty is Broadway productions and literature. She fondly remembers one competition where the question was, which Broadway musical was based on a side character from an L. Frank Baum book? She instantly knew the answer was “Wicked.”

NUHS uses a similar process. Often questions from previous seasons will return in some form. The question might be worded differently, but the answer is the same.

Bute said this year was extra challenging because a new company was developing the questions for competition. The style of questions has changed and made it more difficult to predict.

“We need to be more patient with long questions,” Bute said.

The first round of the KB competition involves a written quiz taken by the entire team, but the later rounds involve oral questions in which the teams need to buzz in with the answer.

Dobberpuhl said speed and listening skills are the key to doing well in the oral rounds. He said all the teams competing will likely know the answer, but processing speed is often the deciding factor. A strong team might be able to answer a question before the moderator is done asking it.

As MVL and NUHS continue to rank high in KB competition, the extracurricular activity has become more popular.

At MVL, Niebuhr said she joined because her older brother was in Knowledge Bowl and had many fun stories. It was also a team activity that did not focus on sports.

At NUHS, Abby Hietala said her older sister was in the KB and she would attend the practices. She remembers getting questions correct at one of the practices and that inspired her to join. Hietala also liked the open culture of KB. She said it had a welcoming environment.

Bute said he has seen the status of KB rise in recent years. “People are excited to be part of the team,” he said.

In his first year as coach, NUHS had six students in KB, but now they are average 30 students a year and that includes this last year that was dominated by a pandemic.

The pandemic has halted many academic events. The pandemic was devastating to MVL last year. COVID prevented them from returning to state after qualifying again in 2020.

“Last year we had a record team and might have repeated (the first place win from the year before at state), but the pandemic happened,” Dobberpuhl said.

Fortunately, virtual competitions were made possible this year. In-person meets have continued in some regions. It is relatively easy to social distance a knowledge bowl competition but it has been a challenge.

“There is nothing easy about this pandemic,” Bute said. Some students were quarantined. It is hard to get a team together when everyone needs to be separate.

In addition to losing some of the excitement of in-person meets, internet speeds have created problems. A team might know the answers, but if its bandwidth is poor, it cannot answer in time.

“We learned lessons about ringing in,” Bute said.

A lot of technology and coordination were needed to make the season possible. Bute said they started with a crawl, but by the time of regionals, NUHS got the bugs out of the system.

The Minnesota State KB tournament is set to begin virtually on April 9.

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