Road to the NSC: Walter Payton College Preparatory High School

by Sadie Britton, PACE Director of Communications

The quizbowl team at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, a public magnet school in Old Town Chicago, has a lot to celebrate as they close out their 2023-24 season at the PACE NSC this weekend. They’ve just had the most successful season of any quizbowl team in the history of Chicago Public Schools— and in only their third year of existence.

Walter Payton's quizbowl team competing at an IHSA scholastic bowl tournament.

Prior to fall 2020, Walter Payton had never had a quizbowl team in any capacity. During that pandemic school year, a small group of students (including current captain Karl Barnickol) got together to start the team. Mark Taylor, the team’s coach and a science teacher at Walter Payton, has nothing but praise for the students who put in the work to create and develop the team under such challenging circumstances.

(above at left: Walter Payton at an IHSA Scholastic Bowl tournament. Photo courtesy of Mark Taylor.)

“In essence, they managed to put this team together all by their own efforts,” he says. “They’ve all worked so hard these past four years to establish and build the team all on their own during the pandemic, to recruit each other, and to grow and become as strong at the game as they are now.”

2024 marks the Grizzlies’ second appearance at the NSC. Their 34th-place finish last year is a result any team should be proud of, but is downright stunning for one only in their second year of competition and their very first national tournament ever.

Their biggest accomplishments this season so far truly show how far they’ve come: a 7th-place finish at the NAQT Illinois State Championship and advancing to the finals of the Illinois High School Association Scholastic Bowl State Tournament. The former gives them the best-ever finish for a Chicago Public Schools team, while the latter is the first time any CPS team has advanced to the finals in the 38-year history of the IHSA tournament. Senior Addison Baker was named to the IHSSBCA Class AA First Team; Baker, along with teammate Matias Roa, will also represent Walter Payton on Illinois teams at NASAT.

Coach Taylor has far more praise for his players than can fit into this profile, but he’s particularly proud of their strong performance against perennial Illinois quizbowl powerhouse Buffalo Grove at the IHSA State Tournament: “We didn’t trophy there, but we did outscore [them] on tossups and we became probably the only team in the state besides [defending NSC champions] Barrington to ‘still be alive’ when going into the last tossup[.]”

Seven of the eight players attending NSC this weekend (this is the first year that Walter Payton has had a B team qualify for nationals!) are graduating seniors. Coach Taylor is excited for them to have this chance to finish their time playing high school quizbowl at a national tournament, but when you poll the students themselves, they’re excited to travel to Reston for a range of reasons.

Several of them are excited to simply be playing the game. Karl is “most excited to play on the most well-written, interesting, and challenging question set of the year against the best competition from around the country.” Addison is looking forward to “another chance to see all the teams and players I love and play some really well-written [questions] with them,” while Jacob Hansen simply wants to “[hang] out with my scholastic bowl pals for one last tournament!”

Joshua Studee understands that they’re all standing on the cusp of a big change, and is looking forward to “chilling with my friends for a weekend after graduation before we all go to different colleges.” In a statement as intriguing as it is cryptic, lone sophomore Connolly Nugent is “excited about the dolphins. I will not be explaining this.” But Matias sums it up: “It’s all about having fun as a group and enjoying ourselves.”

The two teams from Walter Payton have their sights set on a strong finish to the competition year at the NSC this weekend, but they have much to be proud of regardless of the outcome.

Walter Payton's team posing with their IHSA Scholastic Bowl sectional champions plaque.

(Above: Posing with their IHSA Scholastic Bowl Sectionals champions plaque. Photo courtesy of Mark Taylor.)