A winning tradition - NMHS grads and Jeopardy!

Jessica Lindoerfer, a New Milford High School graduate, poses with longtime Jeopardy TV game show host Alex Trebek during her successful appearance on the show. July 2015
Jessica Lindoerfer, a New Milford High School graduate, poses with longtime Jeopardy TV game show host Alex Trebek during her successful appearance on the show. July 2015Contributed Photo / Contributed Photo

The beat goes on for New Milford High School graduates and the iconic TV quiz show, Jeopardy!

Jessica Lindoerfer, a 1994 NMHS graduate, this week became the third NMHS alum and fifth overall New Milford contestant to appear on the Jeopardy! franchise.

The current Vermont resident earned $17,800 Monday on her way to victory.

Lindoerfer correctly answered the Final Jeopardy! question. The category was the Oscars and Lindeorfer edged out returning champion Hilary Carney with the answer, “Ben Hur,” to the question which Hollywood movie set in the time of Christ earned the Best Picture Academy Award.

“I was extremely nervous in the weeks coming up to my appearance,” said Lindeorfer. “My partner, Nate Sebold, and I had flown out to Los Angeles on a Monday in April for the filming and I got a ticket to be an audience member the day before I was to appear as a contestant.”

“I got to see the studio and how it all worked with no pressure,” she explained. “That Wednesday morning, I was excited, and not nervous as the shuttle took me to the studio.”

Lindoerfer met defeat Tuesday in her return engagement as defending champion.

She had not been the first NMHS grad to win on Jeopardy!.

In 2008, her friend since 4th grade, Alison Sculley Kolani appeared on the show and won about $15,000.

In 2011, yet another New Milford High product, Brian McEntee was a victor.

That same year, then 11-year-old Tony Harkin claimed $21,00 as the champion during Jeopardy! Kids Week.

Harkin attributed his win at the time to the ease of the Final Jeopardy question about gold medal wins by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, saying “everybody knows about him.”

Is it something in the water in New Milford?

Not so, said the NMHS grads.

It could well be attributed to the training and mentoring by another Jeopardy! contestant, Brock Putnam, who appeared on the ABC quiz show in 1996.

Putnam was a longtime New Milford High School history and humanities teacher at the time Lindoerfer, Kolani and McEntee attended the school.

Now retired, he was also coach of the high school’s touted Team Waramaug, a competitive academic team that provided top students a venue to compete across the state, region and nation.

Inspired by Putnam’s passion and tutelage, the team earned a national reputation for the caliber of students it nurtured during its more than 20-year run.

McEntee, an NMHS Class of 2000 graduate, was a top scholar for Team Waramaug. Putnam remembers him as a “terrific abstract thinker with an excellent memory.”

Lindoerfer said she was “in Brock’s circle of influence.” He remembers her as occasionally coming to Team Waramuag practices “for the fun of it.” He noted “Jessica radiated a certain confidence, even at 16.”

For Kolani, Team Waramaug was “the perfect training ground” for quiz show success. Putnam found her to be an enthusiastic team member who “clearly enjoyed” the challenge, and winning.

“If you want to link our success at Jeopardy! to Brock Putnam, you couldn’t make a better choice,” said Kolani, who was a Team Waramaug member for two years. “Brock was our team coach and what better possible training.”

“I was a freshman, I think, when Brock appeared on Jeopardy!” McEntee recalled. “You can’t solicit any advice from past players. But I had to let Brock know I was going to be on the show.”

“He absolutely can be credited for the number of Jeopardy! champions from New Milford High,” he said, “both for the enthusiasm and the training he afforded us.”

Putnam, an Amherst College graduate with a masters degree from Harvard, recalled his one session on Jeopardy!

“When I was on it I got myself in a hole in the first half,” Putnam recalled, “with the buzzer. In the second half, I mastered the question-buzzer connection but had dug myself such a deep hole I didn’t make it.”

“Of course, I was 20 years older than the other two contestants,” he winced, “with reflexes that went along with the age difference.”

Like Kolani before her in 2008 and McEntee in 2011, Lindoerfer lost her second game, aired on Tuesday.

Yet she said she has “no regrets.”

After all, as McEntee said, “even if you could study 95 percent of all the things in the world, they could ask that 5 percent you didn’t look at.”

“ I’m really happy with how it all went,” Lindeorfer said. “It was fine with me to be a one-day champion. All the people I played with were so very good.”

“I’m very proud to have represented New Milford on the show,” Kolani added. “This was something Jess and I always talked about doing.”

stuz@newstimes.com; 203-731-3352