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Different Path, Same Goal: Wheeling Park High School Speech Team After Its 41st Consecutive State Title

Photo by Joselyn King Towne Moores, far left, a member of the Wheeling Park High School speech team, practices before her classmates in preparation for the upcoming state championship tournament slated for March 13.

WHEELING — The Wheeling Park High School speech team is on its way to a 41st consecutive state championship this month, but this time members take a virtual highway and not a school bus to get there.

“We’re still on the road to number 41,” said captain Lauren Marquart. “We just hit a pothole last year because of COVID, and it was a deep one.”

Last year the West Virginia Speech and Debate Association canceled its tournament amid COVID-19 concerns. But over the summer, the National Speech and Debate Association created a format for doing speech competitions virtually.

The “Student Congress” debate, a preliminary portion of the state tournament, takes place on Saturday, with students from high schools around the state logging in to compete.

The full state championship tournament is set for March 13.

Presentations in such areas as oral interpretation and poetry reading are pre-recorded, while debate events are live-streamed via computer.

This means students do not travel to other schools for tournaments, but instead compete from their classrooms — or from their homes if their county is listed “red” by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Contestants do their presentations before a computer and not before judges and competitors, and it’s now necessary to practice that way, explained co-captain Tony Meisel.

“It’s a lot more difficult for people to hear that way (virtually), and I know for the speech people that is a huge deal,” he said. “For debate, it’s also important because you are speaking extemporaneously.

“It’s not just a recording for us. It’s about making sure people hear you clearly when you speak through a computer.”

The virtual aspect of competing also changes the psychological mindset of the speech competitor, Meisel said.

“Usually, there is a two to two-and-a-half hour bus ride, and that kind of gets you in the mindset,” he said. “When you get to that high school, you see the people you are debating in person.

“Whereas, the debaters are now just at their house. So you have to put a little more active effort into getting prepared.”

Marquart said only the seniors on the team now know the experience of traveling to a school to compete. Current juniors were sophomores last year, and did not travel to tournaments. Sophomores and freshmen haven’t yet had the experience.

Also, not all of the speech team members have access to strong internet signals and that has presented a challenge, Marquart said. If these members were not able to be at a school facility to get adequate wi-fi access, they went to a teammate’s home, she said.

Co-captain Dailey Ward has been quarantined this week as a result of COVID contact tracing, but he still has been able to prepare for the upcoming state tournament.

“I’ve been doing the same stuff at home — it has just been harder from home,” he said. “What I’ve noticed is it is much easier to work in an environment where you are in-person with everyone in the same building. It gets you fully motivated.

“It takes a lot more personal discipline when you are by yourself at your house. It’s harder, but it’s not undoable.”

The changes in the competition format have allowed speech tournaments to continue during the pandemic, while the WPHS team has continued its overwhelming success. The team and its individual members have won at virtual tournaments organized both in West Virginia and in the PIttsburgh region.

“Last year, nobody was ready for this pandemic,” explained head coach Bill Cornforth. “The state tournament was pulled out (canceled) the day before we were supposed to go. We came back this year knowing we had to do better.”

He credited his assistant coaches Kayla Nelson and Isabella Draginske for having the technological skills to help the students make their virtual presentations look and sound sharp.

“It was a whole new set of skills we had to learn,” Cornforth said.

Nelson said the format “didn’t change much” on the debate side, where contests still take place live. Competitors log in to the meeting room, where they then see the judges and their fellow competitors.

“While this year is different, we were really fortunate to have competed as much as we usually do,” she said. “Many activities didn’t get their seasons, and we were able to make that shift. And we’ve been successful.”

Cornforth said the team is ready for the state tournament, and prepared for competition.

“Yes, we could do it right now,” he said. “You have to approach this with confidence. If you see yourself doing it, there’s a good chance you are going to do it.”

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