Three mathletes advance to state after strong season


Junior Alex Guerra practices for math team. He and two other Knights will advance to State May 7. (photo by Diana Leane)

By Diana Leane, copy editor
Weeks after the event, freshman Tommy Vadakumchery remembers the exact point he made a mistake. In the frenzy to solve a problem at his math team competition, Vadakumchery mistakenly wrote 36 and five added to 39.
Still upset with himself for the mistake, Vadakumchery’s desire to keep improving and his attention to detail helped contribute to him qualifying for state. In addition to Vadakumchery, senior Krzys Chwala and junior Alex Guerra will compete at state on May 7 at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Vadakumchery will compete at the sophomore level, Guerra will compete at the junior level, and Guerra and Chwala will compete together for the junior-senior two person team competition.
According to math teacher and math team head coach Michael Grasse, last year no students qualified for state; he credits this year’s success to an increase in members and to veterans like Guerra and Chwala growing from previous experience and knowing what to expect at regionals, which is the competition that determines state qualifiers.
At this year’s regionals, Guerra and Chwala won the event they coparticipate in – a two person event involving a pair of mathletes competing at a junior and a senior level – and Grasse believes “there’s no limit to how well they could do” at state. Individually, Guerra and Vadakumchery scored high enough to surpass the determining score for state.
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These regional results came on the back of a win at the District meet, the last of the regular competition season, where all the teams in the district competed. This was Prospect’s first District win in seven years and one of Grasse’s favorite moments.
“It was fun to watch students really, really competitive about something that isn’t typically a competition,” Grasse said. “These kids were as anxious as at any sporting event, any other kind of event. They were completely invested in this, and it turned out great for them. Their reaction was the best thing for me to see.”
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Cumulative results for the North Suburban Math League:
Freshmen: first in division
Sophomores: fourth in division
Juniors: third in division
Orals (senior Krzys Chwala): first in division
Overall team: second in division
Courtesy of the NSML.
For Grasse, that reaction was comparable to after “a three-point shot at the buzzer at a basketball game.”
To prepare for competitions, the team has met together for one hour a week throughout the season, and although Grasse thinks practicing more frequently would strengthen the team, he keeps the time commitment minimal in an effort to prevent involved mathletes from picking between activities.
Aside from the designated weekly hour, many mathletes work further outside of school, and Vadakumchery and Guerra have increased the time spent studying due to state. One method they use to prepare is through taking practice tests.
Grasse has noticed this year’s members’ constant drive and how it correlates to the team’s successes.
“I’m proud of the whole team,” Grasse said. “They’re just – from top to bottom – they’re really nice students, they’re hard working, and they’re a fun group.”
Regardless of awards and placement, Grasse hopes the trio going to state will walk away with a sense of pride in their skills and a deeper passion for math. For both Guerra and Vadakumchery, awards are low priorities on what they want to gain at state.
“I hope to learn something [and] just improve my skills,” Guerra said. “I don’t really care how well I do if I just improve.”
Guerra and Vadakumchery’s relaxed attitudes mirror Grasse’s coaching philosophy and what he thinks matters most for the team – the atmosphere.

“I want math team to be a place where students can do interesting problems without the pressure of grades,” Grasse said. “You can put a lot of work into math team, or you can be a bit more casual about it. Whatever the case, we’ll take you and make you a better problem solver.”