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Cary students excel at Microsoft

Ryan Catalfu, left, and Skyler Won practice at Green Hope High School for the Microsoft World Championship. Both boys are national champions.
Ryan Catalfu, left, and Skyler Won practice at Green Hope High School for the Microsoft World Championship. Both boys are national champions. Photo by Amy Galloway Dunn

Inside the computer labs at Cary’s Green Hope High School, teachers Leslie Rael and Dawn Wagner are building a dynasty.

It’s here that students learn the ins and outs of Word, Powerpoint and Excel, the Microsoft computer applications that have become fixtures in schools and offices across the globe.

It’s also here where they hone their skills to enter an annual Microsoft competition for students ages 13 to 22, a “World Series” of sorts in the technology world.

Contests begin on the state level, with winners advancing to national and world competitions. More than 300,000 students from 47 countries typically participate in the annual program, which tests their proficiency in using Word documents, manipulating Excel spreadsheets and creating Powerpoint slide presentations.

So far, Green Hope High students are 5-0.

“We know what to do to get a perfect score,” said Ryan Catalfu, 17, who was last year’s national champion in Word 2010 and this year’s first in the nation in Powerpoint 2013.

This year, 10 out of 12 North Carolina winners were from Green Hope. Nine of those traveled to Orlando for the national competition in June. “We had the most students of any school in the country,” Rael said. “Most schools had two, at the most.”

Ryan, a rising senior, and fellow student Skyler Won, who will be a junior in the fall, took first place in their respective divisions, which means they will return to Orlando to compete in the world competition later this month. Skyler, a 16-year-old from Cary, will be competing in the Excel 2010 category; Ryan, 17, also of Cary, will enter the Powerpoint 2013 division.

Two other Green Hope students also placed in the top three at the U.S. championships. Anthony Reis placed second in the PowerPoint 2010 contest. Emma Dalbo took third in the Word 2010 competition.

Studying and training for this year’s competition began last September. Much of the training involves repeatedly taking the test, which is timed to cut off after 50 minutes.

At the higher levels of competition, accuracy is emphasized over speed so most students take nearly the entire 50 minutes allotted to complete the exam, and many don’t finish. The atmosphere outside the testing rooms is relaxed and friendly but once inside the testing rooms, “everyone sits there in silence,” Skyler said.

Though technology is a common interest, Skyler and Ryan couldn’t be more different. Skyler loves the theater and spends a considerable amount of his time involved in backstage work for school productions. He’s particularly interested in lighting design.

Ryan, on the other hand, has dedicated most of his time to his love of technology – so much so that fellow students will go to him for help when teachers are busy. “Ryan could teach the class,” Rael said.

Both know their way around a computer. Skyler says he was introduced to technology by his father, a computer security engineer, about the age of two. Ryan’s love affair with computers began about the same age. Neither boy can remember a time before computers were a part of their lives.

Skyler’s claims to fame are his rapid-fire mouse-clicking abilities and impressive typing skills, honed from years of computer gaming. “If you watch him with a mouse, it’s amazing,” Rael said.

Skyler credits his skill to his favorite game, League of Legends, which he estimates he plays two to four hours a day, though he said his penchant for gaming also causes him wrist pain.

Ryan, whose advantage lies in his work ethic and love of technology, estimates he works one to two hours a day on competition prep. “I like playing around and figuring things out,” he said.

Amy Galloway Dunn is a freelance writer and editor in Apex. She can be reached at