The Power of Speech

The Flathead Valley has a storied tradition of speech and debate that continues to grow 100 years later

By Dillon Tabish
Senior Damon Maitland, left, and freshman K.C. Isaman rehearse their humorous duo, "A Lion's Blaze," at Bigfork High School on Jan. 21, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Earlier this winter, as she prepared for her final season of speech and debate on Columbia Falls’ 10-time defending state championship team, Emily Getts sat down to write the speech that could determine her team’s fate.

It would be a daunting task for anyone, writing a 10-minute oration that must be memorized and presented with enthusiasm, compassion and intellect. It requires confidence and passion and, not to be overlooked, a good idea to pass 10 minutes in front of several judges.

Only two years earlier, Getts was an anxious sophomore searching for her voice as a public speaker. In the beginning, she struggled.

“I was scared,” she says. “I did really bad.”

There are 12 events in speech and debate, each one requiring equal amounts brainpower and force of personality combined with hours of preparation, as challenging and sweat-provoking as many team sports, but with different uniforms. Public speaking, acting and interpretation are the foundations of speech and debate, or forensics, which, you could debate, is one of the oldest sports on earth, dating back to the ancient Greeks.

The weight of that world was not on Getts’ shoulders when she sat down this winter; instead the Columbia Falls senior simply wanted to write a speech that would mean something to her and those listening.

Her coach recommended ideas, but none could overpower the one that stuck in her mind. Since she was a young girl, Getts loved photography.

“My speech stemmed from my passion,” she says. “If you’re not passionate then no one else will be involved in your speech.”

Within a few days, she had it written and memorized.

The speech tapped into the history of photographs and how they were first developed. It explained what they meant to her and how they can broaden others’ understanding and expand empathy.

“The ability to hold a moment of time is incredible,” she says in her speech. “To me photography is magic.”

Last weekend Getts performed her speech one last time. She won the state championship and Columbia Falls captured its 11th team title in a row.

Sarah Ward, a senior in extemporaneous and impromptu speech at Flathead High School, pictured Jan. 22, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Flathead High School senior Sarah Ward. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

There is a magical and amazing quality to the Flathead Valley’s speech and debate tradition, both individually among the local schools and as a collective.

The regular season wrapped up last weekend and once again our local teams were near the top, or at the top, of the state standings. Columbia Falls continued its remarkable Class A streak, winning its 18th overall championship. Whitefish placed second, its sixth runner-up trophy to go alongside a state title in 2004.

Flathead narrowly placed second in Class AA and Glacier was a close third at the two-day tournament in Billings. Despite missing out on the team trophy last weekend, the two local teams won six of the 12 individual titles. Bozeman rallied on the second day in debate events to unseat the defending state champ Flathead. The victory ended Kalispell’s most recent dominating run; either Glacier or Flathead has won the title every year since 2010.

In Class B/C, Bigfork took the most kids to the state tournament in years and came home with a third-place trophy in speech. Over the last five years, Bigfork has earned second place twice and third place twice.

“I was incredibly surprised when I moved here from Texas (five years ago),” says Whitefish head coach Sara Mueller. “The value that speech has here is really second to none. I have never seen such value. And that’s coming from the Dallas area. I would say it is incredibly unique.”

Dating back to the original team at Flathead County High School in the early 1910s, the local tradition has risen to unprecedented levels.

Flathead has achieved more success than any other Class AA school since state competitions were first organized in 1936. The school has won 22 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.

Flathead is ranked 68th in the nation out of 3,200 teams this season, while the final standings will settle after other states hold their final tournaments. Last year Flathead was ranked 92nd and sent several students, including Wyatt Dykhuizen, Parker Kouns and Sarah Ward, to compete nationally.

“We’re always looking for that state title,” head coach Shannon O’Donnell says. “You go to the state tournament hoping to bring home the hardware every year. To be in a program where you go and know you’ll bring home first, second or third every year is pretty amazing.”

Across town, Glacier is a powerhouse in its own right with 125 or more students participating annually, including several who qualify for national competitions. Head coach Greg Adkins, who formerly coached at Flathead, has continued his winning legacy at Glacier, where the Wolfpack have won four championships and placed in the top three every year but once, in 2007, when the school was established. In 2013, Glacier senior Tanner Maroney became the first Montana student to go undefeated in back-to-back seasons and qualify for nationals in four consecutive years.

Adkins, a Flathead graduate who participated in speech and debate as a student from 1985-86, has won more Class AA state titles – 14 – than anyone else as head coach. He will be inducted into the Montana Forensic Educators Association Coaches Hall of Fame this year. He is the eighth local coach to earn the honor.

Glacier High School senior Aaron Robinson, pictured on Jan. 28, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Glacier High School senior Aaron Robinson. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Their secret is simple, they say. Battling against top competition day after day forces you to learn to survive. And the community’s support is noticeable from the outside looking in.

“I remember we would go to the Kalispell tournament and we would arrive at Flathead High School and there would be a big banner that said, ‘Speech Country.’ That sticks in my mind. How many schools put that in their marquees?,” says Matt Stergios, the former head coach and current assistant of the Missoula Loyola program, which won its 33rd Class B title in a row last weekend.

“They really make it a priority in Kalispell. I’m blown away by how much the Kalispell school system really supports speech and debate. The other thing I’ve noticed and it’s mind blowing — there are 100 or more kids on those teams.”

Stergios credits Adkins, O’Donnell and other longtime coaches, such as Tara Norick at Columbia Falls, for building dynasties through hard work and dedication — the key ingredients to a winning recipe.

“The kids who come in are dedicated and are willing to put in the work,” Norick says. “There is not a different breed of student here than at any other high school. It’s all based on hard work. If they’re willing to put the work in, they’re going to continue to improve.”

The success stories are countless — Glacier senior Aaron Robinson, Whitefish senior Abbie Belcher, Flathead’s Sarah Ward — students finding their voices and identities through the art of oratory, continuing a legacy unlike any other.

Stories like Getts’.

“It’s people from all areas that come together for this one goal, and you become such a family,” the Columbia Falls senior says.

“You really grow in your assurance of yourself. You learn you’re capable and can do this. You walk into that room with confidence and the judges see that.”

Almost like seeing magic.

Columbia Falls High School's Emily Getts, pictured on Jan. 26, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Columbia Falls High School senior Emily Getts. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

2016 State Speech and Debate Results

Jan. 29-30

Class AA

1. Bozeman, 147; 2. Flathead, 126; 3. Glacier, 116

Individual Results

Legislative Debate: 1. Kyersten Siebenaler, Glacier; 4. Makenna Marvin, Flathead; 5. Will Thompson, Flathead; 6. Tristen Lang, Glacier; 8. Nick Brester, Glacier; Policy Debate: 5. Liz Stone and Eli Brown, Flathead; 7. Jenna McCrorie and Emma Trunkle, Glacier

Lincoln-Douglas Debate: 3. Noah Love, Flathead

Public Forum Debate: 5. Erin McHugh and Maya Buckingham, Glacier

Impromptu Speaking: 1. Dylan Crandell, Glacier; 2. Sarah Ward, Flathead; 4. Grace Cady, Flathead; 8. Carolina Sierra, Flathead

Extemporaneous Speaking: 4. Sarah Ward, Flathead; 6. Carolina Sierra, Flathead

Duo Interpretation: 1. Ethan Hall and Edgar Hall, Flathead; 2. Wyatt Dykhuizen and Parker Kouns, Flathead; 5. Abby Van Allen and Brock Adkins, Glacier

Humorous Interpretation: 7. Wyatt Dykhuizen, Flathead; 8. Ethan Hall, Flathead

Serious Interpretation: 2. Mason Devries, Flathead; 4. Hannah Tullett, Glacier; 5. Anika Fritz, Glacier; 7. Renee Barker, Glacier; 8. Maija Hadwin, Flathead

Memorized Public Address: 1. Adam Habel, Glacier; 2. Hannah Tullett, Glacier; 3. Abby Van Allen, Glacier; 4. Payton Keltner, Flathead

Original Oratory: 1. Aaron Robinson, Glacier; 2. Brock Adkins, Glacier; 4. Daniel Sierra, Flathead; 6. Maija Hadwin, Flathead; 7. Kate Giffin, Glacier; 8 Rebecca Vance, Flathead

Expository Speaking: 1. Anika Fritz, Glacier; 2. Tristan Phillips, Flathead; 4. Kodee Wagner, Flathead

Whitefish High School senior Abbie Belcher, pictured on Jan. 26, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Whitefish High School senior Abbie Belcher. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Class A

1. Columbia Falls, 229; 2. Whitefish, 204; 3. Polson, 83

Individual Results

Public Forum Debate: 1. Katelyn Toland and Mollie Lemm, Polson; 2. Anna Nicosia and Mary Ward, Columbia Falls; 5. Bergen Carloss and Kate Ehrenberg, Whitefish; 7. Cassidy Norick and Kelsey Wright, Columbia Falls; 8. Mike Dittrich and Sarah Posey, Columbia Falls

Policy Debate: 1. Annabelle Smith and Sophia Speckert, Polson; 3. Annabel Conger and Colin Norick, Columbia Falls; 4. Ian Caltabiano and Zach Kasselder, Whitefish; 5. Ruth Nelson and Shayne Williams, Columbia Falls; 7. Danielle Schwalk and Ian McKenzie, Columbia Falls

Lincoln-Douglas Debate: 1. Dakota Henson, Whitefish; 3. Kenyon Cairns, Polson

Impromptu Speaking: 2. Abbie Belcher, Whitefish; 3. Ava Chisholm, Columbia Falls; 4. Teigen Tremper, Whitefish; 5. Geneva des Lions, Polson; 6. Saige Percy, Whitefish; 7. Tim Ingham, Columbia Falls; 8. Willie Baltz, Columbia Falls

Extemporaneous Speaking: 2. Abbie Belcher, Whitefish; 4. Zach Ade, Whitefish; 6. Danny Morgan, Columbia Falls; 7. Tim Ingham, Columbia Falls; 8. Makkie Haller, Whitefish

Original Oratory: 1. Sam Benkelman, Whitefish; 2. Chloe Foster, Columbia Falls; 4. Emily Getts, Columbia Falls; 8. Lindsey Matulionis, Whitefish

Expository Speaking: 1. Emily Getts, Columbia Falls; 2. Teigan Tremper, Whitefish; 8. Regan Tinzman, Whitefish

Memorized Public Address: 1. Sam Benkelman, Whitefish; 2. Chloe Foster, Columbia Falls; 3. Zach Ade, Whitefish; 5. Austin Reese, Whitefish; 6. Joey Chester, Columbia Falls; 7. Emma Erikson, Columbia Falls

Humorous Interpretation: 1. Ava Chisholm, Columbia Falls; 2. Saige Perchy, Whitefish; 3. Jerelyn Jones, Columbia Falls; 4. Brandon Karberg, Columbia Falls

Dramatic Interpretation: 1. Jerelyn Jones, Columbia Falls; 2. Hunter Cripe, Whitefish; 5. Jacob Hohman, Columbia Falls

Class B/C

1. Missoula Loyola; 2. Ronan; 3. Bigfork

Individual Results

Original Oratory: 1. Grace Olechowski, Bigfork; 7. Melody McHaley, Bigfork; Memorized Public Address: 3. Riley Hoveland, Bigfork

Expository Speaking: 3. Shannon Frizzell, Bigfork 7. Braeden Tovey, Bigfork

Dramatic Interpretation: 6. Stacey Poulson, Bigfork

Extemporaneous: 8. Reuben Hubbard, Bigfork

Humorous Duo: 2. Damon Maitland and K.C. Isaman, Bigfork

Serious Duo: 8. Ben Johnson and Madigan Kinslow, Bigfork

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