As an incoming freshman at Santa Monica High School, Alex Spanos was shy and easily overwhelmed by large groups of people. Public speaking was out of the question.

He was interested in business and entrepreneurship, though, and a friend introduced him to the campus DECA club.

“Before I knew it, I was competing and making new friends,” he said. “It was truly an organization that accepted me as part of its extensive family.”

Now a senior, Spanos isn’t just competing. He snagged top honors in the sports marketing competition at the Southern California District DECA conference, which was held Jan. 8-10 in Anaheim.

DECA, which was founded as Distributive Education Clubs of America, aims to prepare future leaders in marketing, finance, hospitality and management. The organization, which hosts competitions, conferences and other events, has more than 215,000 members in the United States.

Spanos wasn’t the only student in Samohi’s DECA club who found success at the recent district event. Yahn Bruggeman and Srishti Soni took second place in the financial services category, while Amy Matsushima finished third in hospitality and tourism.

They will join fellow top-10 finishers Emily Dorsey, Emily Flavin, Mostafa Diab, Andrew Finebaum and Nathan Trotter at the state competition, which will be held March 3-6 at Town and Country Resort and Convention Center in San Diego. The students will be vying for spots at the international DECA conference, which is scheduled for April 23-26 in Nashville, Tennessee.

“The competition is fierce,” Spanos said, “but hopefully with enough studying, my chapter and I can excel in our categories and make it to the international competition.”

Many of the students in advisor Mariam Shafiey’s group at Samohi are interested in finance, marketing or related fields. But the skills acquired through participation in DECA, Spanos said, transcend the business world.

“It teaches you about public speaking, how to do well in an interview, how to solve problems in a creative and analytical way, and most importantly how to be confident,” he said. “No matter what field you may try to pursue, it is important to trust yourself when under pressure and speak your opinions with confidence.”

Spanos garnered first place in a competition that included a 100-question marketing test, two role-play scenarios and an interview-style presentation. The competition encourages strong speaking abilities, proper interview techniques and other skills that are useful in the working world.

Spanos has put those kinds of skills to use at Samohi, where he is vice president of student council, president of the Interact chapter and secretary of the Delians honor society.

He will likely study law, finance or international business in college, or perhaps a combination of the three, and he plans to pursue graduate studies before working as an attorney or entrepreneur.

“I have had many people ask me why they should join DECA if they are not sure whether or not they are interested in business,” Spanos said. “Sure, DECA revolves around the topic, but it teaches important skills that can be used in any sort of field of study.”

jeff@www.smdp.com