Montana School in Step With Wheeling Park High School Speech Team

Loyola Sacred Heart School Has 34 Straight Wins to Boast

Photos Provided The speech team at Wheeling Park High School is aboard the bus that takes members to the state championship tournament at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

WHEELING — The next big question up for debate is the following: Just who is the nation’s most dominant high school speech team when it comes to collecting consecutive state championships?

It turns out the Wheeling Park High School speech and debate team isn’t the only high school speech team in America to have won more than 30 consecutive state titles.

Officials at Loyola Sacred Heart High School — a small Catholic school in Missoula, Mont. — believed their school’s speech team held the longest winning streak in the nation after capturing a 34th straight state championship in January.

But they weren’t aware of the dominance of Park’s speech team in West Virginia, which posted its 38th consecutive state championship this past weekend.

The news surprised Matt Stergios, speech team coach at Loyola for 36 years.

And yes, it really is a small world. While he wasn’t aware of Wheeling Park’s run, Stergios has heard of Wheeling and the Ohio Valley.

He said his grandfather was born near Adena.

After Loyola posted its 34th consecutive state title, Stergios checked with the National Speech and Debate Association to see if any other high school team was close to their mark. Officials told him their records indicated there were no other teams in the nation with such a streak.

But Wheeling Park speech and debate coach Bill Cornforth said there is an explanation for the association not recognizing his team’s successes. While Wheeling Park is a member of the national association, it competes in the West Virginia Speech and Debate Association. This means Wheeling Park does not participate in the National Speech and Debate Association’s national tournament in Indianapolis, Cornforth said. He serves as the region’s representative to the organization, which provides direction to the nation’s speech team coaches and judges.

Cornforth said he was informed of the Loyola team’s streak two years ago by then Ohio County Schools Assistant Superintendent Bernie Dolan.

“I guess word is going around again,” Cornforth said.

Stergios said the traditions of Loyola Sacred Heart High School date back to 1873, though the current school facility was constructed in 1922. The school has about 170 students, between 30 and 40 of whom are members of the speech team each year.

Oddly enough, the school doesn’t offer speech or drama classes.

Stergios competed on the speech team as student between 1970-74, then he returned to the school as a teacher and coach and began rebuilding the debate team program in the 1980s. Though he still teaches history at the school, Stergios stepped aside this year to allow new coach Barret Cook to take the reins.

“There’s a lot of pride and satisfaction associated with this team,” Stergios said. “Our streak would have ended a long time ago if not for that.”

Montana is a very large state in area, and it is not unusual for the team to have to travel 300 to 400 miles to compete in a tournament.

There were 48 students on Wheeling Park’s speech team this year, which competed in seven tournaments. Four of the tournaments were in the Pittsburgh region against high schools in western Pennsylvania, East Ohio and West Virginia.

Wheeling Park won three of the four Pittsburgh tournaments, and placed second on one occasion, according to Cornforth.

He credits former speech team coach Fran Schoolcraft for laying the foundation for the team’s winning tradition. She had been the speech teacher at the former Triadelphia High School when Ohio County’s public high schools consolidated into Wheeling Park High School in 1976.

“Before we won our first championship, Parkersburg High School had its own streak and won nine years in a row,” Cornforth said.

“Fran Schoolcraft and the students didn’t win the first years at Park, but once they did win the kids worked hard to keep it.”

Cornforth joined on as debate team coach for the 1979-1980 season, with Schoolcraft remaining head coach of the team until 2004. Cornforth has been head coach for the past 13 years.

He had sound advice for his counterparts in Montana.

“Keep at it,” Cornforth said. “It’s a lot of fun winning.”