Then there’s the historical record: California teams have won 12 of 24 national championships, Texas has won 11, and Wisconsin one. L.A. Unified schools have won eight of those championships, including Taft’s two in 1988 and 1993, both coached by Art Berchin, who came out of decathlon retirement in 2003 to try for a third national win. Team members give a lot of credit to Berchin, a soft-spoken, dedicated English teacher who also teaches classes at Santa Monica College – where the team members are dual-enrolled in college English classes – and Pierce College. They described him as stern but fair, a respected coach, not a buddy. “Once you’re a friend, you can’t push the kids to do what they should,” Shaffer said. “He’s really strict but he never yells at us.” Schettler recalled when the stoic Berchin offered a handshake after they won the state competition. “And I said, `No, no, Dr. Berchin, this is not a handshake moment,’ and I gave him a big hug, and for the rest of the day he was beaming,” she said. “And he did not take his medal off.” If they win, team members said, it will be for Berchin, and also for the 54 other California teams who competed at the state level and forced Taft to study harder, longer and more efficiently by making it as tough as possible to claim the California crown. “(Acadeca) does so much good for the school and for this district, and if we win, it says a lot about the kind of talent we have here in California,” Berchin said. “These nine students got an education they couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.” But in Acadeca, nothing can be taken for granted, not even Taft’s high score. Berchin’s teams have won the regional competition three out of the past four years, only to see other teams surpass them at the state level. In San Antonio, they will face teams from 38 other states, all of them dreaming of an upset against Taft, against California. “We want to do as well as we possibly can,” Rebrova said, noting that the team’s scores slipped from regionals to state. “It’s not just about the win. We want to surpass ourselves.” [email protected] (818) 713-3663160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREOregon Ducks football players get stuck on Disney ride during Rose Bowl eventThe Taft team – Ellington; Michael Farrell, 17, of Canoga Park; Farhan Khan, 18, of Encino; David Lopez, 17, of Burbank; David Novgorodsky, 17, of Woodland Hills; Julia Rebrova, 16, of Encino; Atish Sawant, 18, of Stevenson Ranch; Dean Schaffer, 17, of Woodland Hills; and Monica Schettler, 17, of Tarzana – has been in San Antonio since Sunday. Studying. But they aren’t just study drones. During an interview shortly after their state victory, they cracked jokes – obscure references to Francis Bacon’s death or lines from Shakespeare – and talked about the friendships they’ve made with other California decathletes and their hopes in Texas. “We all understand how hard everyone works to be a part of this program,” Schettler said. “We’re competing with the best of the best.” And Taft is considered the best of the best. The school garnered the highest state score in the nation – 50,912 points out of a possible 60,000 – nearly 4,000 points ahead of its closest rivals, the champs from Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona and Illinois, whose scores ranged from 45,409 to 46,933. “This is a monster team. This is a team of destiny,” said Cliff Ker, Los Angeles Unified School District Academic Decathlon coordinator, who oversaw the district’s 60 teams this season. “Getting to know these kids last year, and knowing their potential as decathletes, as persons, has been something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in my 29 years in education. These kids are phenomenal.” After the U.S. Academic Decathlon is over, California’s state champion team plans to sleep, eat steaks and go to an amusement park. After the competition is over, that is. Woodland Hills’ Taft High School team took a week off after they won the state championship in March. Since then, they’ve spent nearly every day studying for the national competition in San Antonio, which begins today. “It would be ludicrous to relax for five weeks after working so hard for two years,” said Zac Ellington, 18, of Woodland Hills, one of the six decathletes who also competed on last year’s team.