WPHS Speech Team: 39 Championships, And Looking for 40
WHEELING — It’s a topic worthy of oration, yet there is little debate on the facts.
Arguably, the Wheeling Park High School Speech Team has been the most successful competitive high school team in West Virginia — if not the nation– for nearly 40 years.
With 39 consecutive state championship wins, the team’s reputation continues to grow each year, as does the pressure to remain at the top.
“No player or coach wants to be the one to lose that first championship,” said WPHS speech and drama coach Bill Cornforth.
Each year, students compete to be among the 40 members of the team. Those selected then compete among themselves for opportunities to speak and debate for the team during competitions.
“The students know what they are doing and getting into when they try out,” Cornforth said. “They compete with each other for spots, then they support each other by working with each other.”
The team begins by preparing for each state championship and going outside West Virginia to compete in regional tournaments in the Pittsburgh area, Cornforth said. The first three tournaments of 2019 saw them win twice, and place a rare second on the third occasion.
He attributes the success of the team to the support of the Ohio County Schools administration, the dedication of its coaches, and most importantly the hard work and creativity of the students.
“Ultimately, it’s all about the students — working hard and doing the research,” Cornforth said.
He said the team is fortunate in that the school district sees fit to employ not just one coach, but also three assistant coaches to assist members of the speech team. Assistant coaches are Kayla Nelson, Isabella Droginske and Bridget Mazure.
There are also classes at WPHS in speech and debate, as well as honors classes in speech.
“And there are practices after school — a lot of them,” Cornforth said.
Cornforth has been associated with all 39 state championships by the speech team, starting out as an assistant coach.
Former coach Fran Schoolcraft led the team to its first 25 championships, and set the bar high for its competitive niche in future years, he said.
“She set the tone right away for discipline, commitment and high-level excellence,” Cornforth said. “When I took over the program, it was already well-established. The tone continued, but it was established by her as a strong foundation.”
Cornforth now is seeing the second generation of speech team winners coming through the program.
Assistant Coach Bridget Mazure was on the team, and her son Vance Mazure is a member of the current team.
Also on today’s team is Lauren Fox, the daughter of Ohio County Schools Human Resource Officer Susan Nolte. Nolte was a debater on the team in the 1980s, Cornforth said.
Another alumnus is former U.S. attorney and current West Virginia Sen. William Ihlenfeld. His daughters, Sarah and Emma, competed and won awards with the speech team last year.
Cornforth said many past members of the speech team have gone on to success. This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by Gail Adams, a former coach who now serves as a member of the Ohio County Schools innovation team.
Adams is organizing a reunion of past speech team members, which has been set for April 14 in the WPHS food court.
The WPHS speech team competes for its 40th consecutive state championship March 22-23 at Marshall University.