His fists clench tightly as perspiration drips down his face, leaving bloody nail impressions etched in his hands. His heart is pounding furiously, but his eyes can only helplessly watch the unrelenting hands of the timer count down the final seconds remaining -- and then -- it is all over.

A bomb explosion?

Not exactly.

This is the first meet of the year for the members of MasterMinds Buffalo League 5.

MasterMinds is an interscholastic competition that tests participants on academic knowledge. Sports, history, literature, mathematics, geography, pop culture, arts and science are all fair play as two teams of four students each engage in nerve-racking matches where speed and coordination are of the essence.

"It's like a four-player 'Jeopardy'," says Dylan Borzynski, a sophomore at Niagara Catholic High School, as he prepares to launch his second MasterMinds season.

Students race each other and the clock to ring buzzers and respond to "toss-up" questions, which are answered individually for 10 or 15 points, depending on how quickly into the reading of the question the student answers. A student who correctly answers a toss-up question earns his or her school the chance to answer three bonus questions, adding a potential 30 points to a team's score. Games are divided into two eight-minute halves, with players allowed to make substitutions during half-time. On average, a winning team will earn about 180 points, while a losing team can earn as low as 50. However, as the current MasterMinds statistics show, there are games as close as 90 to 75, and as far apart as 330 to 0.

Dave Kerling, a sophomore at Cheektowaga Central High School, was excited about his first MasterMinds meet last week. He says MasterMinds gives him a "chance to learn more information."

Dylan also enjoys learning, saying that he "likes answering questions" -- as well as "hang[ing] out with friends" between matches.

MasterMinds competitors and their coaches gather approximately once a month during the school year, when each team engages in either two or three matches with other schools. Each team in the league hosts a meet once per year, providing pizza, drinks and other snacks for the competition. Occasionally, meets will be held at a neutral location.

MasterMinds teams vary in size, from Lewiston-Porter's four-person team to Niagara Catholic's 16 players -- a number that keeps growing with every practice.

"People think they're not smart enough to play MasterMinds, but there are a lot of different questions," says Justin Leathers, a Niagara Catholic junior participating in his third year of competition.

The eclectic mix of questions, ranging from the location of the sinoatrial node to hit songs by the Village People, all but ensure a question for everyone.

"I got involved because of my teacher [coach]," says Dave. "He has a nice personality."

Dylan's reason for joining MasterMinds was much more direct. "Because Justin was [in MasterMinds]," he confesses after momentarily deliberating the question.

Justin warns students not to be discouraged at first by tough questions and dull practices. "Actual games are really fun," he says, remembering the sweet feeling of a recent second-period comeback.

Beatrice Preti is a junior at Niagara Catholic High School.