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Published: Tuesday, 3/23/2010

Opposing coaches united in debate hall of fame

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Trish Sanders of Notre Dame Academy and Paul Moffitt of Southview were inducted into the Ohio High School Speech League's Coaches' Hall of Fame. Trish Sanders of Notre Dame Academy and Paul Moffitt of Southview were inducted into the Ohio High School Speech League's Coaches' Hall of Fame.
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They coach speech and debate at high schools five miles apart on Sylvania Avenue. They're both on the Ohio High School Speech League's executive committee, carpooling to meetings and teaming up on league projects.

And early this month, Trish Sanders and Paul Moffitt were inducted into the speech league's Coaches' Hall of Fame at the same ceremony.

Considering how often their paths have crossed, if not been shared, "It's kind of fitting that we went into the Hall together," said Mr. Moffitt, an English teacher in his 19th year at Sylvania's Southview High School.

As only two coaches are inducted in any given year, it's unusual for both to be from the same speech-league district - it hadn't happened in 15 years - much less the same county.

"It is something to treasure - it's amazing and astounding," said Mrs. Sanders, who is in her 23rd year teaching speech and drama at Notre Dame Academy. "You are joining a group of people who have accomplished a lot. But what's overwhelming about it is being voted into the Hall of Fame by your peers. They're the people who understand how much you've put into it, especially for as long as we have."

The Ohio High School Speech League's Web site lists 120 member schools. Competitors participate in seven disciplines, including policy/public-forum debate, "Lincoln-Douglas" debate, extemporaneous speaking, original oratory, oral interpretation, prose/poetry, and impromptu speech.

While speech and debate may not have the spectator appeal of football or basketball, it has a long "season" - the first events are in October, while the state competition is in March, with nationals after that - so the time commitment for coaches is substantial.

Yet that long season also means students who may be busy with something else for part of the year can participate at other times, Mr. Moffitt said.

"We can include kids who do all sorts of activities," he said.

He said his career in speech and debate coaching began when he answered this question in his job interview: "Would you be willing to coach anything?"

During the years, 21 Southview debaters have placed in the Top 16 in state competition, including the 1995 runner-up in policy debate and the 2007 runner-up in public forum. He has coached six Lincoln-Douglas debate semifinalists and 18 qualifiers to nationals.

Mrs. Sanders, meanwhile, said she was reluctant to take charge of Notre Dame's then-tiny speech team because she didn't want to neglect her then-young children. But even her daughters became members of the team, which this year is 65 girls strong.

Her speakers have included a national-champion interpretive duo, Christina D'Amato and Susannah Hilliard, in 2001, plus six state champions and nationals qualifiers for each of the last 15 years.

But both coaches say speech and debate is about much more than winning competitions. It's also about developing an important life skill: the ability to speak clearly and persuasively.

For some participants, Mrs. Sanders said, a "personal best" may merely be overcoming fear and speaking in public - at all.

Speech and debate "opens doors to the talent inside these kids," she said. "No matter what career they pursue, they must present themselves to the world."

Valarie Johnson, a 2006 Notre Dame graduate, said that when she and her friends learned of the hall of fame's existence, "we were shocked that Mrs. Sanders wasn't already in it."

Miss Johnson said practicing speech under Mrs. Sanders' guidance "was the single-most important part of my high school and college experiences" because learning to be a persuasive speaker has opened doors for her that otherwise would have been closed.

"I was a really shy person when I got to high school, which most people would not believe right now," Miss Johnson said.

"She believed in me, that I could do something that I never thought I could do," said Carly Johnson, Valarie's younger sister who graduated last year.

The younger Miss Johnson said her first try at impromptu speaking lasted just 30 seconds - out of an allotted 7 minutes - but "she just told me to try out one more time." Now, she said, "I'm just a more confident person in general.

Blakely Dye, a 2007 Southview graduate, had similar praise for Mr. Moffitt, whom she credits with inspiring her to pursue pre-law studies at Marietta College and become interested in politics.

"He has had a really influential impact on my life, and he is a very ethical coach," she said. "He always strives for teamwork and cooperation."

Miss Dye and Andrew Arvay, also a Southview speech alumnus, staged a debate over Mr. Moffitt's credentials to introduce him to the speech-league dinner where his and Mrs. Sanders' Hall of Fame selections were announced.

And Miss Dye said that while Mrs. Sanders and Mr. Moffitt may coach at rival schools, speech and debate have more of a family atmosphere than do athletics. Mrs. Sanders often serves as a "mother figure" for Notre Dame speech and debate students at competitions, she said.

"I honestly couldn't think of two other people who are more qualified for this honor" than Mrs. Sanders and Mr. Moffitt, she said.

Mr. Moffitt and Mrs. Sanders, in turn, thanked their school administrations for supporting the speech and debate programs, which while requiring minimal equipment are demanding for time and travel.

"If parents are going to ask anything of their school systems, it should be to give their kids opportunities like this," Mrs. Sanders said.



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