For 34 years straight, the Casa Grande Academic Decathlon team has brought home the shining first-place trophy from the county competition.
Last year, the team swept the event, with 52 individual medals, and went on to place first in its division at the state level. These wins are the cultivation of hard work from students and faculty alike.
However, after longtime science and Academic Decathlon teacher Rick Pillsbury retired two years ago, the team has struggled to find a permanent replacement. Team captain Shreyas Kompalli said, “Mr. Pills basically built the team from the ground up in 1983. He had a good plan and the winning formula. It’s hard to replicate that.”
Another teacher was hired for this school year, but unfortunately had to switch jobs over the summer. So, at the beginning of the year, the words “Blank History” replaced the name of a teacher on class sheets.
Fortunately, dedicated staff and student veterans worked hard to keep supporting the program. English teacher Paula Biancalana generously stepped in to be the substitute teacher, and Kompalli did her duty as captain to lead the class, with support and guidance from librarian Nathan Libecap.
About a month ago, Mitchell Mcsweeney, a Casa Grande alum, stepped in save the day. As well as teaching world history and economics, he will work with the team as the new Academic Decathlon teacher.
He said, “I’ve known this program to be very successful since my time at Casa, and I’m really excited to be part of this amazing tradition and team. It’s historic, and one of the best programs we have.”
Mcsweeney graduated from Casa Grande in 2009 before getting his associate degree in fire tech from the Santa Rosa Junior College and a bachelor’s in criminal justice at Sonoma State University. At first, he planned to become a firefighter or policeman.
He said, “I worked as a lifeguard and swim coach throughout college, and this led to a realization that I enjoyed working with high school-aged kids and that my passion is teaching.”
Mcsweeney then got his teaching credential from Dominican University of California.
Before his experience at Casa, Mcsweeney coached swim teams of up to 150 students for eight years, and hopes to coach the Casa swim team this spring as well. His goal is to bring his coaching experience into the Academic Decathlon program to unite the team.
“The team already seems like a family and I hope to keep that dynamic,” he said.
With three months until the competition, Mcsweeney plans to increase the intensity of the class and make it more challenging, but also incorporate games to keep things fun.
“Mr. Pills left an enormous shadow at Casa, and the bar is set high, so I hope to keep the success going,” Mcsweeney said. “Mr. Libecap has been an amazing resource to help with all the registration, and Shreyas has also taken a huge lead as team captain, making my job a lot easier.”
For now, the team meets every Friday after school. This year’s theme is the 1960s, and students study art, English and more, as well as competing in speech, essay and interview. All of the hard work that students and faculty put in has paid off for the past 34 years.
Veteran senior Molly Zhou said, “Winning is one of the most validating and proud moments for the team, completely validating all our hard work. It’s great to be able to continue Mr. Pills’ legacy.”