Most people get chills just thinking about speaking in front of a group of people.
At Eden Prairie High School (EPHS), there is an entire team devoted to doing just that – the speech team.
While speech may not enjoy the visibility of other high school sports, the time commitment, preparation, dedication and teamwork are no different.
And it’s not a small team; membership is not guaranteed.
More than 100 students tried out for 65 spots available on this year’s team. Cuts had to be made to permit an acceptable player-to-coach ratio. The team is coached by Jason Meyer and his assistants Brinda Shah, Katie Rivers, Ben Giles, Annabelle Ludwig and Sasha Warbritton.
Competitive public speaking
“Speech is competitive public speaking,” said Warbritton, an Eden Prairie and University of Minnesota graduate and an alum of the EPHS speech program.
That’s the definition of the activity, but to Warbritton it’s far more about the young people around her that bring speech to life – the students.
“They’re learning how to communicate and how to create a powerful presence,” she said. “They constantly astound me.”
Speech competitions are unlike any other in high school sports – day-long competitions with individuals often performing with only judges and a competitor in the room. They practice speeches while facing a blank wall, performing multiple times just to secure a chance to win a competition. You can check out the team’s results on their team website.
The necessity of teamwork is also identical to all teams that play a game or run a race. And Warbritton said the coaches won’t take credit for that.
“It’s not about us,” she said. “It’s the kids.”
She tells the story of one of her seniors who, every time she doesn’t advance in a competition, will watch a teammate in the final round of her category.
“I know she’s sad, disappointed about not advancing,” Warbritton said. “I tell her, ‘You can go watch the humor category, have some fun, enjoy it,’” she said. “Her response is, ‘No, I want to go support my teammates.’”
Speech competitions feature 13 different categories, including traditional public speaking categories such as informative, oratory and great speeches to storytelling, drama, prose, poetry and extemporaneous reading.
Saturday tournaments run all day. Every member of the team competes, which can make for a long day.
Tournament competitions are conducted in rounds of 5 to 7 students in the same category. They perform in three preliminary rounds, and the lowest cumulative scores advance to finals. A perfect score of 1-1-1 is called a “picket fence.”
When a student advances to a final for the first time, it is called “breaking.”
“We have to warn the parents that when their kids come home, (eventually) they’re going to say ‘I’m broke!’ Warbritton said. “The parents think something bad has happened.”
In the final round, three judges score based on speech performance (is it fun to watch, clear diction, good hand gestures, etc.) and content (does the speaker cite sources, make a good argument or tell a good story), Warbritton said.
“Competitors are technically allowed to use a script,” Warbritton said. “But they get better scores if they are memorized. We push our team to be off script by the first or second tournament.”
Students qualify for the state tournament by placing in the top three of their categories at the section tournament, which begins March 17.
Two of the captains
Senior Keerthana Ramanathan and junior Harini Senthilkumar are joined by four other captains in leading the team – which is considered varsity level and is currently entering the final stages of its 2021-22 season.
Harini is a junior in her third year on the team and specializes in the storytelling category.
She enjoys writing and works on The Student Globe, an extracurricular newspaper that focuses on global issues. She also plays piano, sings and is a member of the NHS.
“I do consider myself a performer,” she said of her interest in storytelling. “I love being in front of an audience. But I wasn’t always like that. Actually, when I was a little kid, I used to be very shy.”
Storytelling requires a competitor to prepare 7-minute speeches about 15 different folktales. When they go to tournaments, they draw one of the folktales out of a hat and present that speech.
“So, it means we have to write and prepare 15 different speeches each season,” she said. “It’s definitely a lot of work.”
In her fourth year on the team, Keerthana has qualified for national finals three times – something no other EPHS student has ever done, Warbritton said.
Keerthana competes in informative speaking, which requires a 10-minute speech on a topic of choice with the intention of informing the audience.
Her speech this year is about political satire.
“I have specifically written about political satire and the importance of what it can convey as a form of comedy, but also a very powerful method of recognition,” she said. “I’ve actually written my entire last part of the speech in satire.”
Keerthana admits to being passionate about politics. “My goal every year is to take an issue or a concept that people generally know about but then kind of do a little twist to it,” she said. “You take a concept and you try to put a spin on it.”
She considers speech a platform to inform. “If my speech can even teach one person about something important I think it’s done its job,” she said.
In addition to being a member of the National Honor Society (NHS), her part-time job is as a project lead for a study focused on cancer stem cells in acute myeloid leukemia at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center.
She began doing research as a high school sophomore and eventually began volunteering at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Eventually, she contacted a researcher at the center and began training. She continues to volunteer with patients and survivors.
“It truly allows me to see the disease both through a microscope and in a human light every day,” she said.
“They’re my first group of seniors,” Warbritton said of the freshmen she worked with when she started as a coach four years ago.
She has watched them go from novices to leaders, and she likes pointing out the little things that have made her proud to be a coach.
At competitions, she is involved in scoring and often knows who has won before the awards are given out.
“I love watching someone who is about to win their category, and they have no idea and then watching their face as they discover that their hard work finally paid off for them,” she said.
By tradition, students who place from second to sixth get a single loud clap from the audience made up mostly of other competitors.
The winner receives a rousing standing ovation.
“That standing ovation is a moment that a lot of speech students live for,” she said. “Something that a lot of them only dream of. That’s really a special moment for these kids.”
The EPHS speech team will compete in the 6AA section tournament on March 17 at Prior Lake High School. The State Tournament for those who qualify is April 22-23 at Eastview High School in Eagan.
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