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Publish Date: 3/15/2005

Mariko McMillan, Amanda Hotovec and Max Greiner, left to right, are members of the Niwot High School Japanese language team. They will be heading to Washington, D.C., for the national Japan Bowl on March 26.Times-Call/Erin McCracken

A yen to learn
Niwot language students earn spot in national Japan Bowl

 NIWOT — Take the pressure of perplexing questions about Japanese language and culture, aggravate that with timers, buzzers and expectant judges, and you have the Eighth Annual Regional Japan Bowl.

Some of the event’s competitors — high school Japanese language students — arrived at Denver University on Feb. 27, decked out in suits and ties, diligently studying books and notes.

The strategy of Niwot High School’s two Japanese language teams: a trip to Starbucks.

“Our motto was, ‘Yeah, we didn’t study,’” said team member and Niwot High School senior Max Greiner, 18.

Yet in the end, both Niwot teams, first timers at the annual event, pulled off praiseworthy feats: each nabbed first place in the regional competition, beating out teams from 24 high schools from Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, and earning a spot in the national Japan Bowl on March 26 in Washington, D.C.

How did they do it?

“Honestly, it was a lot of luck,” Mariko McMillan, 16, said.

Modesty, as well as a growing grasp of the Japanese language, are among the groups’ strong suits, according to Jessica Arntson, who has worked as a Japanese sensei and U.S. government instructor since fall 2004.

“These guys are severely underestimating themselves,” Arntson said. “These are the stellar students in this program.”

Japanese is a fairly new addition to the school’s curriculum. Former Niwot High School teacher Dale Howe introduced the course to the school more than a year ago after convincing officials it was a worthwhile study that would attract broad interest.

Today, Arntson, who took over for Howe when he left last year, provides lessons in Japanese language and culture to 30 second- and third-year students.

Among those participating in the program are the six members of the school’s Japanese language teams: third-year students Max Greiner, Mariko McMillan and Amanda Hotovec, 17; and second-year-students Hannah Steffey, Luke Morris and Zeke Rast, all 16.

Most team members have dabbled in the romantic languages; Steffey and McMillan took French lessons, while Morris and Rast picked up a Spanish course or two. Greiner even learned a little Tibetan.

But once Japanese became a member of the family of languages at Niwot High School, most of the students eventually gravitated toward it.

“My mom made me,” McMillan admitted. “I’m half Japanese, so I had to learn.”

“Also, Japanese candy is really good,” said Greiner, the group’s eccentric, as he pointed out a half-eaten container of the Japanese sugary snack “Yam Yam.”

Greiner said it’s snacks like these that get the group through the after school study sessions the group will continue to attend as the national competition draws closer.

And although coming back home with two more first-place titles would be nice, returning after being treated to an all-expenses paid trip to the nation’s capital wouldn’t be so bad, either.

“I’m excited for the free trip to Washington, D.C.,” Mariko said.

Valerie Singleton can be reached at 303-684-5319, or by e-mail at

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