Haddonfield Middle School students distinguish themselves in geography bee

Nuckols and Kuball are friends and competitors for the sake of knowledge

Lilliana Kuball and Alex Nuckols, friends in real life but competitors in the National Geographic Geography Bee which occurred on Jan. 10 at Haddonfield Middle School. Nuckols finished first and Kuball was the runner-up.

On Jan. 10 at Haddonfield Middle School, 32 students from sixth through eighth grades competed in a geography bee sponsored by National Geographic. Under the supervision and leadership of seventh-grade social studies teacher Mike Prevoznak, and through eight rounds with varying themes, only two students remained.

In the end, seventh-grader Alex Nuckols won, and eighth-grader Lilliana Kuball finished in second place. Fitting, because these competitors and friends have participated in the bee — and against each other — for years.

“From an early age, I knew most of my states and capitals, but I forgot that around third grade. But in fourth grade, when the geography bee came around, I started getting interested again. I’ve been doing that ever since then, and this year was my last year. In fourth grade, I finished in third place, in fifth grade I won, in sixth there wasn’t any. Then, last year, in seventh grade, I did not do as well,” Kuball related.

Added Nuckols, “My brother, who is three years older than me, when he was in fourth grade, he competed in the geography bee and he won. So then, when I got to fourth grade, I decided I wanted to do it, and thought it was fun. She actually beat me that year and I got second. And then the next year, I really wanted to win and studied very hard and won that year.”

The National Geographic GeoBee is an annual competition designed to inspire and reward students’ curiosity about the world. Students in grades four through eight from nearly 10,000 schools across the United States will be competing in the 2019 edition for a chance to win college scholarships.

It includes three levels of competition — school, state and national. Schools conduct a GeoBee and name a school champion. The school champion then takes a proctored online qualifying test, and the top 100 ranked students in each state qualify to represent their school at the state-level GeoBee competition. State champions will travel to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., to compete in the national championship.

In Haddonfield Middle School’s version, which lasted approximately 90 minutes and caused each participant’s class schedules to be altered, there were seven preliminary rounds followed by a championship round where the top 10 finishers competed to finish in the top two. Each round sported a different theme, including features of standard geography, but also branched out into animals and weird-but-true facts.

Both competitors took different paths to prepare. Nuckols revealed he thought the hardest part is knowing when to stop studying because the sheer volume of information can lead him to overthink, which is not good under pressure. He believes the most fun aspect is learning how different each country can be.

For Kuball, the hardest part is the luck of the draw in each round. There are so many questions that can be asked, she often doesn’t know what to study and focus on. But, she readily admits the easiest and most fun part is when she gets to use all that random knowledge in a competition.

All 32 participants in the National Geographic Geography Bee which took place at Haddonfield Middle School on Jan. 10. (Photo credit: Mike Prevoznak/Special to the Sun)

“Seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teachers Johnathan Maxon, Travis Thomas and Caren Izzo delivered the questions flawlessly and could have easily given Alex Trebek a run for his money,” said Prevoznak. “What impressed me the most was the incredible sportsmanship Lilliana displayed at the conclusion of the final round.”

Nuckols will have until Feb. 1 to complete the online State GeoBee qualifying test, and by March 4 he will find out if he will be one of the 100 to compete for the New Jersey title. All 50 state geography bees are scheduled to be held on March 29, and the National Championship will be held at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., from May 19–22.

“We get a lot of ‘great job, Alex’ and ‘great job, Lilliana,’” said Kuball when asked if there’s any special recognition for doing well. “After a week and a half, everyone forgets and we can move on with our life.”

If Nuckols ends up advancing to states and beyond, no chance the congratulations will pass any time soon.