They don’t score touchdowns, sink buzzer-beating baskets or drill any game-winning goals, but Moriarty High School students have been crushing it at the National History Day competitions for more than a decade.

“We have a very strong program,” said Amy Page, Moriarty High School social studies teacher and National History Day coach, adding, “This is our 14th year and we’ve taken kids to nationals 13 of those years—it’s normal to have six to eight teams advancing to nationals.”

What is not normal, however, is how this year’s group faced unprecedented stumbling blocks and still managed to knock it out of the park at the state competition.

National History Day, or NHD, is a nonprofit organization that holds an annual contest with more than a half million participants from around the world, according to nhd.org.

The top winners at state competitions advance to the national contest.

Working individually or in groups, students create research projects that follow an annual theme. This year’s theme is “Breaking Barriers in History.”

Students must also create their projects in one of five categories that range from written papers to performances.

“Some kids build their own websites, some produce their own documentaries, some are physical exhibits that can be 72 inches high,” Page said, adding, “NHD allows students to think, research, write, and interpret like historians.”

Moriarty’s first challenge came in January when the group lost two of its members, Pedro and Mateo Sandoval, who died in a car accident.

“When that happened it really took the wind out of our sails, everybody was really shellshocked,” Page said.

Lesley Merino and Natasha Sears, first-year NHD students, had partnered with Pedro Sandoval on a group project, “Breaking Physical Barriers: How Plastic Resins Revolutionized Prosthetics.”

After the tragedy, Merino and Sears mustered up the courage to stick with their project.

“It was really difficult, Pete was the mentor on the team,” Page said. “But those two girls rebounded, they had to dig deep and they were so resilient.”

Their group project won a special award at the state competition, the inaugural #SandovalStrong Teamwork Memorial Award, sponsored by Brandon Johnson of the New Mexico Humanities Council. Pedro Sandoval won posthumously.

Adding to their adversity, Moriarty’s students had to contend with the coronavirus pandemic that shut everything down from the school to libraries, forcing the students to finish their projects from home.

“These kids had to figure out how to put together their projects online,” Page said. “And all of the projects had to be submitted [for state competition] electronically.”

Moriarty senior Andres Chavez, along with teammates Caia Kamplain, Henry Schuett, and Angelica Trillo created a group project titled, “Healing Their Broken Bodies: Breaking Medical Barriers Through Sport.”

The project focused on German-born neurologist Ludwig Guttman, a pioneer in physical therapy and founder of the Paralympics. It took second place at the state competition, launching Chavez to the national contest for the second consecutive year.

Chavez said it was a challenge trying to complete their group project through Zoom meetings and phone calls.

Moriarty freshman Kaisa-Tinuviel Baca placed second at state and advanced to nationals with her individual project, “Mary Tyler Moore: Breaking Gender Barriers During Prime Time.” Courtesy photo.

“It was much more difficult obviously than if we had been able to get together,” Chavez said. “This year feels a little different, but it still feels exhilarating to qualify, especially under the circumstances.”

Moriarty freshman Kaisa-Tinuviel Baca placed second at state and advanced to nationals with her individual project, “Mary Tyler Moore: Breaking Gender Barriers During Prime Time.”

“I wanted to focus on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ because it had a lot to do with the women’s movement and changing how women were viewed on TV and in real life as well,” Baca said.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was one of the first prime time sitcoms with a single, 30-something professional woman in the leading role.

“She was independent so I thought that was really cool,” Baca said. “I thought it was very empowering.”

Baca said some of the writers on the show were also women, “which was new for the time.” She interviewed one of them for her project and hopes to interview one of the cast members as she prepares for nationals.

Moriarty captured 17 total awards at the state competition that was announced during the virtual awards ceremony on May 3. Thirteen students qualified for nationals.

Typically, the NHD national contest is held in June in College Park, Maryland. This year, like the state competition, nationals will be held virtually.

“What they’ve achieved is pretty incredible,” Page said of her students. “They’ve overcome loss, they’ve had to overcome technology challenges, working through the stay-at-home restrictions, and to still reach the level they have is outstanding. I couldn’t be prouder of these kids.”

Leota Harriman
Leota Harriman

Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at [email protected]