OWATONNA — Owatonna’s speech team is sending three students to Saturday’s state competition, and they received a sublime sendoff Friday afternoon inside Owatonna High School from teammates, classmates, and staff members.
Sections for schools in the 1AA designation were conducted in Northfield earlier this month, and freshman Jackson Hemann and senior Carolyn Stauffer qualified for state as a duo, while senior Liam Miller made it in the discussion designation. Competitors had to finish in the top three of their categories at sections to make state, which is in Wayzata Saturday.
Miller is in his fourth year of speech, while Stauffer and Hemann are in their third year — the first in Owatonna for Hemann — but this is the initial trip to state for all three. In addition, they each attempted multiple categories before finding their most success in their choices this year.
Miller posted decent results as a freshman and sophomore with informational speeches, but his transition to the humor category last year tanked, he said with a laugh.
“I realized I’m not actually that funny,” said Miller.
Jessica Wagner, an English teacher at OHS, suggested he’d excel in the discussion category, and it’s proved to be a judicious decision, he said. “I’ve been working on communication skills,” and speech has helped him communicate better in his daily life — and those efforts in his normal interactions have also benefited him in speech.
No doubt, speech builds critical life skills, Stauffer said. “Some people are good for speech, and speech is good for some people.”
Miller hadn’t finished higher than fifth prior to sections, so his bronze medal placing was a pleasant surprise, he said. While his first round at sections “did not go well,” in the latter rounds, he was co-leading the preponderance of discussions in his group, which served as a harbinger of his eventual high scores.
Like Miller, Hemann bombed in the humor category when he tried it, he said with a chuckle and shake of his head. “It was really bad.”
He them attempted the “complete opposite,” drama, and finished fourth at sections, he said. However, he wasn’t sold on the category, which made him open to Stauffer’s pitch, and “I was really excited” when she texted him about the possibility.
During the high school’s fall play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” in which Stauffer’s character, Siobahn, acted as the maternal figure for Hemann’s Christopher John Francis Boone, the duo realized “we had some nice theatrical chemistry,” Stauffer said. “I didn’t know what category to do” for speech in her final season, so “I suggested duo” with Hemann.
The duo category is full of “weird rules,” like the fact Stauffer and Hemann can’t touch or even look at each other, she said. That can lead to some awkward moments, like the scene in their selection in which she has to hand him a bowl.
Despite the occasionally bizarre interaction on stage, they appreciate being able to “play off each other,” she said. “It’s hard when it’s just you up there, but we can match each other.”
In “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Hemann portrayed a boy with autism, and their text for speech involves a child with attention deficit disorder, he said. “He is struggling with it,” and there’s a debate among his family and doctors whether or not he should be placed on medication.
Stauffer and Hemann both play multiple characters, mother and teacher for the former, and child, father, and doctor for the latter, she said. “It gets pretty intense,” since “you need to be fully invested in the speech.”
“You need to feel those feelings,” she continued. “It’s draining, especially when you have to come back that night and do a play.”
Stauffer and Hemann are both in the cast for “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged — Revised,” a performance of which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday.
Team-bonding is an allure of speech for Stauffer, Miller, and Hemann.
“We’re all supportive of each other,” Miller said. “I like the quote” the team had on the back of last year’s T-shirts: “The only thing people fear worse than death, we do for fun.”
“It’s cool to see the team grow,” Stauffer said. “My first year, we had 12 (members), and I was the only new person, and this year we have 56 on the team.”
Speech is “an encouraging environment,” and “I’ve made tons of friends” from other schools she otherwise would not have if not for speech, she added. For example, on an overnight visit to Bethel University, where she’ll enroll this fall, “I saw a ton of people I knew from speech.”
The discussion category is unique in speech in that it involves a half-dozen students from various schools sitting in a circle engaging in — often animated — discussion, Miller said. The topic remains the same throughout the season, but they’re assigned different tasks each time pertaining to the overarching topic, which this year is social media’s effect on popular culture.
In discussion, “you can get overpowered by other people,” and that’s particularly a concern for Miller, who is admittedly “not an alpha,” he said. However, he uses that to his advantage.
“I’m the one who doesn’t try to overpower everyone,” he said. “I let them go at it, then I calm it down, make my points, and take a reasonable approach.”
Discussion rewards a combination of research — Miller keeps a binder full of materials with him at every contest — and “being quick on your feet,” rather than “reading off a script,” he said. “You need to bring in research to support your points.”
Though Stauffer and Hemann had their text memorized a month before their first speech competition, they’ve continued to refine their performance throughout the season, a main reason for their success, she said. While they performed skillfully in the first competition, they didn’t rest on their laurels.
“We continued to use critiques from captains, coaches, and judges to edit and adapt,” she said. “We changed things two days before sections,” and even on Friday morning, they were still making minor alterations.
At state, Miller has two keys to delivering his best performance, he said. “I have to keep my heart rate under control, and bring my points in (solidly) — then ride them out, because (other competitors in the group) will be cutting me off.”
“Judges know if you’re nervous,” Hemann seconded. “If you’re poised, you’ll get ranked better.”
Among others, Jeff Elstad, Owatonna’s superintendent, Mark Randall, OHS principal, and Marc Achterkirch, OHS activities director, all stopped by Friday’s farewell to deliver laurels to Miller, Hemann, and Stauffer. Achterkirch even offered a few words of wisdom, reminding the trio to savor their experience at state.
“Sit back, look around, and enjoy it, because very few students get this opportunity,” Achterkirch told the triumvirate. “You earned it, and it’s really special what you guys have accomplished.”