Undebatable Greatness

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead Valley has long been considered one of Montana’s premier sources of high school wrestling, distance running and track and field.

But judging by legacies of success and the sheer number of participants, it’s worth remembering that among extracurricular activities, speech and debate has reigned supreme.

Flathead has achieved more success than any other Class AA school since state competitions were organized in 1936. The school has won 21 state championships and finished in the top three at the state meet every year since 1973. Flathead’s program has also consistently been the largest in the state, averaging between 100 and 125 boys and girls who compete among 12 events.

In the Class A ranks, Columbia Falls and Whitefish have dominated as well, regularly ending the season with top-three trophies. Columbia Falls has won the last seven team championships and 14 overall.

Since 2007, another local powerhouse has developed. Glacier has ranked in the top 20 in the nation and will attempt to win its third straight championship this weekend in Butte. The Class AA finale is Jan. 25-26. The Class A meet is the same days in Havre and B/C is in Huntley Project.

“There’s healthy pressure,” said Glacier senior Angie Merrill. “We have a really strong team and we have faith in each other. It’s a little bit scary, but we know we can do it.”

This year’s team is bigger and better than ever. With almost 140 members, Glacier has won nine of its 10 meets this season, including a resounding victory at the 65th annual Gonzaga University Conway Classic. Competing against almost 30 teams from around the West, Glacier finished on top for the second year in a row. Except this year, it wasn’t even close; the Wolfpack won by almost 40 points.

“It’s been a really remarkable season,” said head coach Greg Adkins, the former head coach at Flathead who built Glacier’s program from the ground up with his longtime assistant coaches.

“When the season began we knew we were going to have a good team. It just felt like we had a good group of returners coming back, but you never know. It’s exceeded my expectations.”

Even though the team has competed against schools as far away as Louisiana, Glacier’s toughest competition has ended up being its cross-town rival. Flathead is the only team to beat the Wolfpack this season. At the season-opening Kalispell Classic, Flathead scored 224.5 points while second-place Glacier earned 213. Missoula Sentinel was third with 87.

Flathead last won state in 2009, its 10th title since 1998. Under head coach Shannon O’Donnell, the program is again one of Montana’s best this season along with fellow powerhouses Bozeman and Glacier. Bozeman won in 2010 and has the second most AA championships in state history with 16.

In Glacier’s first season the team finished seventh. In the following years it earned third, second and then back-to-back firsts. Last year the team was ranked 20th in the nation, according to the National Forensic League, an organization that promotes speech and debate across the U.S.

“It’s amazing to go from seventh to third and now first. It’s an amazing build up,” said senior Tanner Maroney. “This year, more than ever, it’s definitely about carrying on a legacy. We’re very proud of our tradition and we want to keep that going.”

Zach French, front, and Keckeley Habel problem solve an ending to their duo interpretation during a recent speech and debate practice at Glacier High School. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Up the road in Columbia Falls, the same goal is in mind for a young program that only has two seniors. Head coach Tara Norick and her assistants Kim Gange and Leslie DiMaio have seen a group of students focused on keeping the school’s proud dynasty intact.

“We still have a young team, but they’ve all been working really hard and I feel like they’re pretty strong,” Norick said.

It’s helped that every tournament has featured top-tier competition from Glacier and Flathead, Norick said.

“We have very strong success here (in the valley),” she said. “When we see such strong competition on a weekly basis it helps us really prepare. It’s really good for us, and it’s good for our students. It really ups the bar.”

The roots of this valley’s success date back to 1916, when Flathead won the Montana Interscholastic League State Championship in Bozeman. Speech and debate remained a vibrant activity among local high schools. Whitefish won the fourth official Class AA state championship in 1939, well before the Montana High School Association sanctioned the events in the early 1960s. Many local students have gone on to compete nationally.

“Success just breeds success,” Adkins said.

Glacier’s team theme this season sums it up: “Tradition Continues.”