The COVID-19 pandemic may have drastically reduced the size and experience of Wauseon High School’s Speech and Debate Team this school year, but it didn’t steal the zeal to win.
All eight members qualified to participate in the 2021 Ohio Speech and Debate Association (OSDA) state finals held virtually March 5-6. And senior member Noah Harman took the championship, winning the right to compete among 3,000 participants in a national tournament in June.
It was a noteworthy finish for the WHS team, especially since it was atypically small this school year and consisted of mostly freshmen with little or no experience. That fact, however, didn’t stop Nicole Stein from progressing to quarterfinals at the state tournament among 183 fellow competitors in the Congressional Debate category. And it didn’t prevent Joanne Hite and Shawn Robinson from reaching the final round in their dramatic and humorous interpretation categories, respectively.
“For them to break the finals was a really nice thing,” said Dolores Muller, WHS Speech and Debate Team head coach.
Originally scheduled to take place in the Youngstown, Ohio, area, the OSDA competition became a virtual event after the pandemic shut down schools and their extracurricular activities. Still, the event drew participation in 13 categories from 1,076 students in 87 school districts across Ohio.
The WHS team members included Mason Felzer, Humorous Interpretation; Noah Harman, Program Oral Interpretation; Joanne Hite, Dramatic Interpretation; Kaden Milliman, Informative Speaking; Shawn Robinson, Humorous Interpretation; Nicole Stein, Congressional Debate; Samantha Stein, Humorous Interpretation; and Hayden Uribes, Congressional Debate.
In addition to claiming the state championship, Harman won the Sylvania Tournament in his chosen category in January, and several practice tournaments throughout the regular speech and debate season. He also qualified for the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) Tournament held Feb. 20.
Their performance this school year was a feather in the cap of the WHS team, which usually consists of about two dozen members. But the pandemic left school students learning virtually, so the Speech and Debate Team formed through word of mouth this year and included six freshman members.
Their regimen included weekly team and individual practices, 11 regular season tournaments, and a district competition that led the entire team to the state contest.
The journey wasn’t a smooth one. Along the way the WHS team confronted technological problems when the Chromebook laptops the school district issues students weren’t strong enough to keep the team members sufficiently connected to an NSDA online platform designed for competitions amid the pandemic.
“It became apparent that the Chromebooks were not powerful enough to handle the kind of connectivity that we needed. We were kind of overwhelming the devices. But we stuck with it…to overcome that shortfall,” Muller said.
She placed a Band-Aid on the problem by having team members record their competitions, an acceptable alternative to performing in real time. “When you’re performing for 10 minutes and every minute counts, if you lose time or can’t be seen for even 30 seconds (due to technical difficulties) it interferes with the perception of your performance,” she said.
A solution came from the Wauseon school district, which purchased webcams team members could attach to desktop computers at the schools, ensuring good internet connections and eliminating glitches.
Team members also received assistance from Olivia Behm. The long-term substitute teacher for the school district’s virtual academy had participated in speech and debate while attending Napoleon schools.
“She was very enthusiastic,” Muller said. “The kids took well to her enthusiasm that was kind of contagious to them. I think she played a large part in helping them to keep coming back.”
But Muller, who has led the Speech and Debate team since 1998, also credits the team members themselves, “an amazing group of kids, and I think part of (that) was due to the nature of the individuals involved. And Noah was a good, encouraging presence.”
Harman, who has qualified for the state competition three consecutive years, and also won honors as a sophomore and junior, took the state championship this year with his program oral interpretation speech, “The Boogeyman.” It deals with misperceptions by society of the LGBTQIA+ community, and borrows from the prose, poetry, and drama genres.
He said the team’s individual works made it easy to work virtually. “We definitely were able to progress through the season almost very similarly to the way we would without a pandemic going on,” he said. “(But) without being face-to-face with the people who are giving their speeches, it takes a sort of different tone. It’s like we’re all together but there’s a (community) link that’s a little bit broken.”
Harman, who plans to study either the performing arts or speech and debate at Bowling Green State University after graduating, said he was impressed with this year’s team. “A lot of people go through their entire speech careers and don’t even qualify to state…and for the freshmen already qualifying for state, and especially for (Stein) breaking to quarter finals, that is a huge, huge step into the future of our program,” he said.
WHS Principal Keith Leatherman said the webcams were purchased “to make sure that those kids could still compete and had everything that they needed to do that, and to do that successfully. They have just done fantastic…I’m just super proud of the kids. They adapted extremely well.”
Muller said the Speech and Debate Team deserves credit for its tenacious effort.
“Those eight (members) that did stay were very faithful,” she said. “Those six newbies went through a lot of trials and tribulations technologically. They all stuck with it and were rewarded by being state qualifiers.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.