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GHS academic team celebrates bittersweet victory after losing senior Patrick Kelley
Gainesville High senior Academic Team members Isaac Hopkins, left, Cody Stephens, center, and Charlie Bryant recently led the team to a first place finish in the state RESA tournament. A medal for their recently lost teammate Patrick Kelley hangs from the trophy.

The Gainesville High School Varsity Academic Team is the perfect example of what can happen when preparation meets dedication.

In just four years, the team has gone from nonexistent to state champions.

With the encouragement of former administrative assistant Beverly Nordholz, English teacher Pam Michelsen revived the team in 2007. It took a year’s worth of research and recruiting, but she found a winning combination in team members Isaac Hopkins, Patrick Kelley, Charlie Bryant and Cody Stephens.

At the time, the four were sophomores, but they proved early on that they had the know-how to achieve greatness.

"They won second in state as sophomores and as juniors they won the North Georgia championship," said Michelsen, the team’s advisor.

"They made it to the final eight or so last year for the state championships."

This year more than made up for their past defeats. Their season was literally flawless. They didn’t lose one of their 21 competitions.

The foursome did suffer one tragic loss: Founding teammate Kelley was killed in a car accident during winter break, just a few weeks before the Georgia championship.

"I think at the beginning of the year, we were hitting it really hard thinking this is the year. We’ve got it this year," Hopkins said.

"With the tragic loss of our fourth teammate right before the state tournament, that really lit another fire under us."

In the NBA, they give the Sixth Man Award to a player that proves to be an invaluable asset coming off the bench as a substitute. For the GHS team, there could never be a substitute for Kelley, so they decided to look to their missing fourth member for inspiration.

"He was good at just about everything," Stephens said. "We would keep him in for all of the rounds."

"Our teammate wasn’t there physically, but he was there in our hearts," Bryant said. "I think we felt he was smiling down on us, saying look at my team mates go."

And go they did.

"At the actual final, nine-hour competition, they didn’t lose a single round the whole day," Michelsen said.

"By the final round, I hesitated to mention it to them, but I said to myself, ‘This one is for Patrick.’ And they blew the other team away."

The final score was 420 to 240.

The day wasn’t without its challenges, though.

"When the judges would come up with certain questions, we’d think immediately, ‘That’s a (Kelley) question. He would’ve gotten that,’" Hopkins said.

Each team member has their specialty. Kelley was the math whiz, Michelsen says.

"(Stephens) is good at everything. What no one else can remember, he knows immediately," Hopkins said.

"My strengths are English, social studies, geography and the arts."

"I definitely hit the math hard and concentrate on the science stuff," Bryant said.

Having the last three years to learn each other’s strengths gave the team a leg up on their competitors, its members say.

"One advantage that I think our team always had going into the competitions was that we had the greatest sense of camaraderie," Bryant said.

"That was a huge advantage because we all trusted each other and knew that we’d come through for one another."

Seniors Bryant, Stephens and Hopkins have been on the team the longest, but there were other contributors to the GHS victory. The other members were Elie Nwefo, William Morris, Alex Longoria, Jorge Gonzalez, John Lee Givogre, Katie Schmid, Chris Kelley, Martha McKinnon, Brenda Dang, John Stenzel and Anh Nguyen.

The group is coached by Michelsen, with assistance from Sally Jackson and Elie Viviant,

"Everybody gets to play in the current events round, but the key players are the individual rounds," Michelsen said.

"All of the questions are tied into the Georgia Performance Standards. This is heavy duty curriculum they’re covering. It’s not trivia.

"It’s all about being very smart, but also very fast."

"And sure," Stephens added.

The group is currently raising money to build a trophy case large enough to house its trophies and future "academic excellence" awards.

"We’re going to put a plaque on it where it is dedicated to Patrick’s memory," Michelsen said.

Overall, this year and their hard-earned state win has been a bit surreal for the team.

"It was an emotional overdrive. Everything came together in a hazy, golden moment," Hopkins said of the final tournament.

"I was crying. I went and gave (Kelley’s) little brother a big ol’ hug," Bryant said.

"Everybody was grinning. It was almost that cliche sports moment where you’ve gone through so much adversity, but it was all worth it for that moment at the end."

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