“Kaden, how do you feel?”
“You feeling good, Maryn?”
Rebecca Meyer-Larson was checking on her team a few minutes before Friday’s Class 2A state speech competition began at Apple Valley High School. The Moorhead coach knew the hay was in the barn after months of hard work, and she also knew the final day of the season held high expectations.
There are 13 categories in speech, ranging from Creative Expression to Extemporaneous Speaking to Storytelling to Original Oratory. Last year Moorhead went home with a state championship in one category (Izzy Larson and Devon Solwold in Duo Interpretation) and won enough second- through eighth-place medals to share the 2016 team championship with Eagan.
A few days before Friday’s event, Meyer-Larson talked to me about speech and what makes it different from other MSHSL activities.
“It’s not like wrestling, it’s not about getting a pin, it’s not about getting faster,” she said. “It’s so subjective. All you can control is how much you can control; sleep, preparations.”
This is Meyer-Larson’s 25th year as the Spuds coach. (She is on the right in this photo.) In her first year, the team consisted of five students. This year there are 74; 28 of them qualified for state via the Section 8 tournament.
“We always start with, ‘Who do you want to be later in life? What kind of person do you want to become?’ ” she said. “I’m biased of course, but I think this activity is the best at preparing these kids for the future. I’m amazed by their intelligence, their drive, their desire to do good and be good.”
As the Spuds knew, there were no guarantees Friday. Izzy Larson (the coach’s daughter) and Solwold were back to defend their Duo Interpretation title. That category has been a Spud specialty, with Matthew Wisenden and Jordan Hartjen winning state in 2014. Could Izzy and Devon make it three Moorhead Duo Interp titles in four years?
State speech is a torrent of cross-current performance streams. Classrooms are the competition sites, with speakers, judges, room managers, coaches and fans studying maps of the school to find the room and speaker(s) they want to see. In the first three rounds, six speakers are in each room and their lineups change during those rounds so different judges can see them. Following the first three rounds, the top eight in each category advance to the championship round, with each category viewed by five judges.
In Extemporaneous Speaking, Moorhead’s Bridget McManamon’s first-round presentation centered on President Trump’s relationship with American workers and labor unions. As she made her points while discussing things like NAFTA and jobs in the coal industry, Bridget quoted articles from The Economist, Politico and other sources.
Evyn Judisch -- competing in Creative Expression with a highly entertaining presentation that he authored (titled “Greetings Mr. Ducksworth”) -- sat at a classroom desk waiting for the room manager to start the round. All the speakers dress in business attire; males in dark suits and females in skirts and jackets. Evyn (pictured), with slicked-back hair and large eyeglasses, owned the room as he voiced three characters and physically “became” them. He had seemed small as he sat at the desk but was larger than life during his performance.
In a nearby classroom a few minutes later, Moorhead’s Kaden Moszer was the opposite of teammate Evyn during his Serious Interpretation of Prose speech: “I’m Not a Serial Killer” by Dan Wells. While Evyn made Room 219C laugh, Room 211 was buried in absolute silence as Kaden glared, glowered, muttered, screamed and raised an invisible knife (no props are used).
“By the end of the season they’ve been giving these speeches for a while,” Meyer-Larson said. “It’s fresh every weekend, but we always tell them you walk up to the front of the room and they ought to see in you that you love your words, you love this activity, love your team and represent the activity and your school.”
After three rounds, lists of those who qualified for the championship round were posted on TV monitors throughout the bright, spacious school. As everyone waited, Meyer-Larson reiterated with a hint of nervousness, “This isn’t wrestling. You just don’t know.”
The results, as it turned out, were very good for the Spuds: 16 of them advanced to the final round. That meant 16 medals would be traveling home to Moorhead, but even after the competition ended there was more waiting. The awards ceremony was scheduled to begin in the gymnasium at 5:30 but there was a lengthy delay while results were finalized. Music was played in the gym as students sang and swayed to the likes of U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.” When the Village People classic “YMCA” began to play, it was parents who were doing the dancing.
And then the results were announced, with MSHSL speech rules clinician Cliff Janke at the podium. One by one, the eight finalists in each category came to the stage and stood in a line as winners of the eight medals were revealed, from eighth to first.
It quickly became clear that this was going to be Moorhead’s day. Storytelling state champion: “From Moorhead, McKensie Bedore.” Informative Speaking state champion: “From Moorhead, Sarah Schulz.” Serious Interpretation of Prose state champion: “From Moorhead, Noel Kangas.”
The first three categories to be announced resulted in three champs from Moorhead. Meyer-Larson sat in the bleachers with the team, standing, applauding and seeming breathless at times.
The Spuds’ Carolyn Solberg won gold in Great Speeches and teammate Maryn Cella placed third. In Serious Interpretation of Drama, Luke Seidel was second and Kenan Stoltenow was sixth. In Humorous Interpretation, Ariana Grollman finished as a state runner-up and Sophia Klindt was fourth.
The closers came through, too. Izzy and Devon were awarded their second consecutive state championship in Duo Interpretation and teammates Abby Dahlberg and Skyler Klostriech were fifth. Then came the team scores: Moorhead 84 points, Apple Valley 62, and Eagan and Lakeville North sharing third place with 34 points.
For the jubilant Spuds, this had become a day of Non-Extemporaneous Peaking.
“It was definitely kind of a trial to get through it,” Devon said of winning another title with Izzy. “I was really, really eager this year, even more than last year, to just be here. You of course want to do it again but you’ve got to swallow whatever happens. The fact that it went down this way is phenomenal.”
“The reason why these kids are so good is because Minnesota is so good,” said Meyer-Larson. “And that’s because of the Minnesota State High School League, the way they treat these kids. They treat them like rock stars. If you ask any kid here, they believe what they’re doing is every bit as important as what happened at state hockey or state wrestling. Because it is. The high school league does a brilliant job of making these kids feel special.”
After photos, hugs and even a few tears, the day – a remarkable day for the kids who were 250 miles from home -- had ended.
“It’s just so fun,” Izzy said. “One thing my mom says the most is that it’s not about the trophies and how well you do; it’s about the heart and how much passion you have for your speech and your team and sticking together and having an awesome time. And that’s we did. Sometimes it works out.”