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Photo courtesy of Tamara Combs

On April 10, Centennial High School's Virtual Business represented California in the Virtual Enterprises International Business Plan Competition and earned first place. From left are Jarrett Buntley, Brooke Wheeler, Casey Hoover, McCall Miller and Kandis Cornelius.

Friday night was the Bakersfield Phenom competition at BHS. A shameless ripoff of "American Idol," this contest pits kids from various high schools against one another, and I was a judge. I didn't want to do it at first, but my pal Monty Byrom was judging, so I figured it would be worth a few laughs. What I wasn't prepared for was the staggering amount of talent these kids had. I mean there were a handful of acts that were close to professional caliber. Even the ones who weren't as good showed incredible courage performing in front of their peers. That can't be easy for a kid.

The competition was divided into two categories, "talent" and "air band." I was glad they made that distinction; I'd hate to have to judge them together. I'm generally against people pretending to play instruments, but, hey, it's made Kenny Chesney a zillionaire, so why talk kids out of it? To my surprise, some of those airbanders were really entertaining.

I gave my only perfect score to a group called Ethan and the Mormons. They brought it, big time. After the show, I told them they were welcome on my porch any day.

The winners, announced Saturday night, are: Anthony Deguia of Independence, who won the grand prize of $750 for his ukulele performance; the judges awarded first place and $300 to Mary Tun of Stockdale, and second place and $150 to Animal Print of Frontier; the people's choice first place and $300 went to Unlike the Rest from Independence, and second place and $150 was awarded to Awkward Bra Shopping of Arvin.

Those kids worked crazy hard and had the guts to put themselves out there on a stage in front of a bunch of screaming teens. I hope they invite me back next year.

Brainy kids in NYC

This week's cool stuff is almost entirely about teenagers. I know what you're thinking: Kids these days, with their YooHoo and their Spirographs -- they're just no good. Well then I have good news on two fronts.

First up are the kids from Centennial High School's Virtual Business squad. They're not actually called that, but they should be. These five young braniacs -- Casey Hoover, McCall Miller, Jarrett Buntley, Brooke WheelerandKandis Cornelius -- traveled to New York City to take part in the National Business Plan Competition, and they came home champions, beating out 20 other teams from all over the country. Here's the thing: If these kids had won a national championship in a sport, they'd be the talk of the town, and rightfully so. But these youngsters did something way more impressive in my book; they came up with a virtual product, built a business plan around it, did exhaustive research and presented it to high-powered people in suits in the McGraw-Hill Building in Manhattan. Their "business" was called Ripple (I can hear you tittering from here, but these are good kids who have no idea about what bums like to drink). They (and their teacher) all won Apple iPad Minis, among other swag.

Think about that for a moment: How many adults could face down that kind of pressure? Imagine your boss sending you to the Big Apple to make a do-or-die presentation like that. Most of us would fold like lawn chairs, but these kids rose to the occasion and brought home first prize.

I spoke with teacher and program coordinator Tamara Combs, who seems like the kind of remarkable educator that could lead these kids to success. When I told her I knew Ms. Cornelius, she said, "Well, that one's no good," which should tell you everything you need to know about her leadership abilities.

These future leaders rely on donations to fund the program, so next year, get involved. We have a title to defend.

Another hit for Earle

The other musical highlight this week was the release of "The Low Highway" by Steve Earle. His last record, "Washington Square Serenade," was so good that I was afraid the new one would be a letdown. As it turns out, it's yet another work of unmitigated genius. His unmatched songwriting, his stripped-down production, his love of bluegrass, and his respect for Hank Williams are all on display on "The Low Country." I even picked up a copy on vinyl to celebrate National Record Store Day. I assume Pat Evans over at World Records knew he'd move that one.