Flathead Speech and Debate Team Comes Out Swinging

By Beacon Staff

It’s not sneakers and balls, but suits and the Economist magazine. Instead of sweating and running laps, hours of practice are spent on pronunciation and filing. It’s Flathead High School’s speech and debate team and members don’t find it at all odd that they spend their after-school hours voluntarily learning.

“I think it’s other people that find it weird,” joked junior Katie Hoag, who competes in extemporaneous and impromptu speaking. “I could do something like basketball and spend time getting really good at it, but once I graduate and get a job I’m not going to need to be good at basketball. This will be useful the rest of my life.”

Hoag is one of about 100 students competing on Flathead’s defending state champion speech and debate team. Flathead opened its season last week, scoring 233.5 points in a blowout win. The team scored 143 more points than the second place finisher, Missoula Sentinel, and individual members took first in 11 of 13 events.

Head Coach Kala Lougheed said the first meet was “a promising start,” especially for the younger members of the team. “The split (into two high schools) gave us access to freshmen who otherwise probably wouldn’t be involved and there are sophomores who are new to it because they didn’t have the opportunity last year.” While more students get to join the team between the two high schools, Lougheed said meets are limiting the number of students each team can bring to accommodate a second school. “More students will get to join and participate, but fewer will get to compete,” she said.

Lougheed said the team is sorting out who competes in what events – sometimes a season long process. “For the most part the kids are pretty good at knowing where their talents are and sorting themselves. I’ve had several seniors volunteer to switch events because they know there is a need for bodies or leadership there.”

Extemporaneous and impromptu team members filtered into a classroom after school last week to practice with Lougheed and pick up their “ballots,” or scoring sheets from judges. After a timed three-minute complaining session, where each team member vented on their frustrations with the first meet, members split off and began work. Senior Dan Browne and Hoag, who took first and second, respectively, in both events, said their relationship as teammates and competitors was pretty relaxed.

“I tell her I’ll break her kneecaps though if she starts beating me,” Browne joked.

As the two slip easily from conversation about school to talk of Iraq generals, the economy and presidential candidates, it’s easy to forget they’re teenagers. “Most of these kids probably know more about current events than any average Joe you’d find on the street. In policy debate kids are coming up with workable solutions to problems that politicians aren’t even touching,” Lougheed said.

Equipment for extemporaneous speaking consists of giant plastic tubs. Hoag and Browne spend practice cutting out magazine and newspaper articles filling the tubs with folders of information on every country and national and world issues. The result: a carry-along Google, a must when they have minutes to prepare a complex argument.

They need facts to support an argument that the global economy is in recession? Got it. Thirty minutes to prove global warming isn’t a conspiracy? No problem. Is nuclear power the answer to America’s energy needs? Thank goodness for the Economist, “the extemper’s savior.”

And in the rare case they don’t have a folder on the topic they’re asked? “That’s when we wing it. You just try to find something that seems related, present that and pretend you misinterpreted the question,” Hoag said.

After making it to the national speech and debate tournament last year and seeing former teammate Treza Hirsch become the state’s first ever national champion, Hoag said her season goals are set. “State is the most important focus for the team and nationals is the focus individually.”