The Columbia Falls High School speech and debate team had come to peace with the end of their 13-year reign atop Class A, had accepted that their absolute best effort in Belgrade last weekend was not quite enough to prevent rival Whitefish from taking home the title, and was proud of the second-place trophy they had earned.
But they were going to miss the fire truck ride.
For each of the previous 13 years, state champion Columbia Falls speech teams piled onto fire trucks, paraded around town, and visited elementary schools in the district to cheers from the next generation of state speech and debate champions.
Then, on Wednesday, they hopped on the fire truck.
In an unprecedented twist in the days following the state finals, the Montana High School Association noticed an error in the way scores were tabulated and recalculated the team totals. What originally was a 187-187 tie with the tiebreaker awarded to Whitefish was now 192-189 in favor of Columbia Falls, and the MHSA awarded Columbia Falls the state championship, its 14th in a row.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Columbia Falls coach Tara Norick said. “Coaches are doing the (tabulating), we’d all been there for 18 hours and mistakes happen. And we were so close, if there had big a big difference we wouldn’t have seen something like this.”
The two-day state competition features a number of sweepstakes events, and points are awarded based on a team or individual’s performance in each event. Following the final event, late on Jan. 26, results were tabulated and the final team scores were announced, awarding Whitefish the state title.
One day later, however, the MHSA was alerted to “a possible error in the sweepstakes scoring” and Scott Wilson, MHSA assistant director, collected all score sheets and recalculated the final totals, according to a statement the MHSA sent to Columbia Falls and Whitefish officials. During the course of recalculating the points, Wilson identified two errors.
In the Humorous Oral Interpretation event, Columbia Falls and Whitefish each were awarded two additional points, a change that would not impact the overall outcome. In Dramatic Oral Interpretation, however, Columbia Falls was given five points instead of two, as had originally been scored, and the revision changed the final standings.
The MHSA handbook, according to the organization’s statement, does not provide a protocol for correcting clerical errors, so Executive Director Mark Beckman made the final judgment and “determined that the errors in scoring have been confirmed, need to be corrected and to award Columbia Falls the first place trophy and Whitefish the second place trophy.”
The Columbia Falls students learned of their victory on Tuesday morning, when Activities Director Troy Bowman read the MHSA’s statement aloud to them, a moment none of them saw coming.
“Just so much disbelief, because we were at peace with knowing we had put our best out there and we had decided, as a team, that we were going to feel good about our performance,” Norick said.
Video of Bowman’s announcement was shared on social media, and Norick said she and her team’s attention quickly shifted to their counterparts in Whitefish, who spent more than 48 hours as state champions before being dethroned through no fault of their own.
“My kids were very concerned,” Norick said. “They knew that Whitefish had final (exams) and they didn’t want the kids to find out online. And so, even now, our team is trying to come up with a plan for what we can do to support Whitefish, what we can do to let them know how much we respect their ability.”
Norick added that her opinion of both teams’ showing at state, regardless of which team received which trophy, remains unchanged.
“Whitefish’s performance and our performance, they were both fantastic,” she said. “We’re just so close. (Whitefish is) so strong, it is just fantastic for the valley that we have so many good coaches, and speech and debate kids.”
In the Class AA tournament at Flathead High School, Glacier took home the first-place trophy while the hosts finished second. No scoring revisions from that competition have been announced.