Jennifer Mondelli makes a point during the practice of her humerous skit.
WAUSEON - Speech, ironically, is one of the least public of all high school activities.
On Saturday mornings, competitors rise in the wee hours, don suits and ties, and travel long distances to tournaments, almost none of which allow spectators.
It's an activity that's becoming increasingly rare.
Wauseon High School is the only one of Fulton County's seven high schools to field a speech team.
But at Wauseon, there's growing interest in speech. This year's team has 34 members, including many underclassmen, making it the largest since the team was organized in 1993.
And eight of those members have qualified to compete at the Ohio High School Speech League's state tournament this weekend at Boardman High School near Youngstown.
The tournament is expected to draw about 700 students from the 116 schools that belong to the speech league.
Some of the powerhouse teams in northeast Ohio, where speech tends to reign in the state, will each have dozens of students in the tournament. But many other schools have only one or two qualifiers, according to Linda Miller, executive director of the speech league, who called eight qualifiers a good number for one school.
Wauseon's qualifiers are:
•Danielle DeLeon, a senior, competing in original oratory with a speech she wrote titled "Our Finest Hour" - a line plucked from the movie Apollo 13. The speech focuses on building on failures to achieve success.
•Nicole Spadafore, a senior, competing in oratorical interpretation with a speech called "The Blame Game," written by Lisa Farinella from Toledo's Notre Dame Academy a few years ago and published by the speech league. The speech looks at the tendency to blame one's own shortcomings on others.
•Jennifer Mondelli, a senior, competing in humorous interpretation with a cutting from the play The Producers by Mel Brooks. It deals with an ill-conceived notion of a producer who decides he can scam money from old ladies by producing a play that's a flop and absconding with their money.
•Katie Boyers, a freshman, competing in prose and poetry with a collection of pieces on beauty, which look at beauty in spirit, intellect, and relationships, as well as outward appearance. Katie, with the advice of an assistant coach, selected the pieces and wrote transitions to put them together in one presentation.
•Timothy Bechill and Nick Savage, seniors, competing in public forum debate. They prepare arguments for both sides of an issue and a toss of a coin will decide, right before they compete, which side they will take. One recent issue for the league's debate teams was whether or not casinos are beneficial to the economy.
•Heather Harper and Kimber Myers, seniors, competing in duo interpretation with a 10-minute script taken from the Jon Stewart political satire book America (The Book). One of the most difficult parts of that competition is that they are not allowed to look at each other while performing, even though their piece is based on talking and interacting with each other.
"You actually have to get into your partner's head and know what they're going to do," Miss Harper said.
She and Miss Myers have done that, she said, by working on their piece until as late as 1 a.m. some days. "Our speech practices are pretty much called sleepovers for us," she said.
It's the very fact that speech is so much work - for the coaches as well as the students - that seems to have led to fewer schools fielding teams, Ms. Miller said.
Twenty years ago there were almost 200 schools in the state speech league - about 80 more than there are today. But speech teams, she said, often have been cut by districts to save money.
Fielding a competitive team can be quite costly. Tournaments are almost every Saturday from October to March and some are so far away that teams travel on Friday and spend the night. The competitions last all day Saturday; it's not uncommon for the Wauseon team to leave Fulton County as early as 5:30 a.m. and arrive back at 8 p.m. or later.
Because the tournaments are typically closed to spectators - many coaches fear spectators would distract speakers, usually accidentally, but occasionally deliberately - speech tournaments can't pay for themselves with ticket sales like football and basketball games can.
But they teach the invaluable skills of research, clearly communicating important ideas, and thinking on one's feet.
For example, while competing during a thunderstorm, Miss Harper and her partner kept going with their routine as the lights went off, emergency lights blinked awhile, and then the regular lights came back on. They were judged the winners of their round.
And that's all part of the game - even though the general public seldom sees it.
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