The Quiet Dynasty

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – In the last decade, Columbia Falls High School has quietly built a dynasty. It has done so without hundreds of cheering fans, without the sounds of bouncing basketballs or crashing football pads. In speech and debate, you don’t need those things to win eight championships in 10 years.

Last year, the Wildcats won their fourth straight Class A speech and debate state championship to tie their own record. From 2000-2003, the team also won four in a row. Not that dynasties can be predicted, but coach Michael Christensen said the blue-collar town of Columbia Falls probably isn’t most people’s top candidate to be the best speech and debate program in Class A.

Ariel Ramstad, Shiloh Knudsen and Stephanie Christensen, left to right, talk about their experiences as speech and debaters at Columbia Falls High School.

But over the past decade plus, it has been exactly that: the team to beat, even with traditional powerhouses Billings Central, Whitefish and Havre continually churning out formidable squads. At private preparatory schools like Central and Missoula Loyola, which has one of the most distinguished speech and debate programs in the nation, socioeconomic factors and available resources provide a more conducive atmosphere for speech and debate excellence, Christensen said.

For this reason, Christensen said Columbia Falls’ rise to the top is that much more noteworthy.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Christensen said. “The fact that we’re blue collar means the kids I get are willing to work hard. But the other side is that some of the kids don’t have the advantages of kids at other schools.”

“We are not socioeconomically advantaged here,” he added. “We have to overcome that.”

Christensen said two fundamental realities have contributed to the program’s success: great coaching and bright kids. His assistant coaches, Alyson Dorr and Tara Norick, are as good as any coaches in the state, he said. And his kids have done a superb job at recruiting younger minds to follow in their footsteps, thus perpetuating the winning tradition.

“I’ve been real fortunate to have some outstanding kids come through our program,” he said.

But the X-factors in the program’s success, he said, have been active community support and an activities director – John Thompson – who consistently goes to bat for the team. Christensen said Thompson places great emphasis on speech and debate, while also overseeing more celebrated activities like football and basketball.

“His representation for our interests at (the Montana High School Association), the time he puts into making us have the resources we need – he’s done an outstanding job keeping us motivated,” Christensen said.

Speech and debate cultivates its own culture. Like other extracurricular activities, it has winners and losers, requires both mandatory and volunteer practice to succeed, and can be fiercely competitive. But Ariel Ramstad, a junior Lincoln-Douglas debater, said speech and debate has a more laid-back atmosphere and tighter camaraderie, even with opponents.

Junior Kevin Kuper rehearses and extemporary speech in a hallway at Columbia Falls High School during an after school speech and debate practice.

Senior Shiloh Knudsen, who played basketball for three years before joining the speech and debate team, agrees with Ramstad.

“It’s weird, because everybody gets along,” Knudsen said.

Part of the reason, Knudsen speculates, is that there is no physical contact in her new activity. Bumps and bruises tend to stir up emotion.

“When you’re in the key (in basketball), you’re getting hit and stuff,” she said. “With this, you’re not attacking one person; you’re focusing on yourself.”

To excel at one’s event, the girls said self-discipline is necessary. Stephanie Christensen, the coach’s daughter, is in two events this year: memorized public address and original oratory. So now she has two lengthy pieces to memorize and perfect, necessitating repetitive practice on her own time. Her subjects, extreme poverty and the Holocaust, require careful delineation in her mind.

But practicing at home, outside of the organized sessions at school, is a bit different than, say, basketball, where players can shoot hoops by themselves without looking odd. Christensen, on the other hand, finds herself talking to walls. And Ramstead brings up another practice partner: “Or a fish.” Family members work too. Christensen said his kids practice at least five hours a week and more than double that for the top performers.

Each year, between 40 and 50 kids come out for speech and debate, one of the highest turnouts in Class A, if not the highest. Altogether, Christensen said the program has taken home nine titles, including eight since 2000. The team has also placed second seven times, Christensen said.

If Columbia Falls wins its fifth straight speech and debate championship this year, it will be a Class A record. Loyola Sacred Heart High School in Missoula has won 26 straight titles in Class B, making it the most successful program of any activity at any level in the nation, Christensen said.

Speech and debaters Jesse Flickinger, Kevin Duper and Jennifer Jurva, left to right, organize their speeches during practice after school at Columbia Falls High School.

But it will be a tough road for the Wildcats, the coach said, because for the first time in his tenure the team doesn’t have a policy debate tandem, which could leave a large hole in the point standings at state. It’s just the way things shook out, but Christensen said there’s still a possibility two kids could come forward to form a policy debate duo before the year’s end.

“It’s like trying to win a state wrestling championship without three weight classes,” he said.

What is clear, though, is that the Wildcats will make another run at state and they’ll have fun doing it.

“We like having fun, but we also like to win,” Ramstad said. “That’s why we work so hard.”