Bring on the best

MARSHALL – Fifteen Marshall High School speech students are ready to “bring it” as they get set to compete at the 39th annual Harvard National Forensic Tournament this weekend in Cambridge, Mass.

Given the fact that the tournament is considered the largest one in the country, a number of MHS students said they are planning to be serious competitors.

“I’m ready to kick butt,” said Bo Erickson, one of three MHS team captains. “Our motto for this trip is to ‘Be a Boss in Boston.’ We know what the competition is like. It’s very hard. But we know how we’ve been competing this year and we’ve been doing the best we’ve done.”

The Harvard trip is offered every other year, MHS head speech coach Rick Purrington said. Erickson, along with captains Abby Surprenant and Nick Evans, were the only three team members to compete at the Harvard tournament two years ago. This time around, the trio said they’ll know what to expect.

“I think when we went sophomore year, we just really had no idea what was going on,” Surprenant said. “We were still new to the activity and stuff. So I think maybe sophomore year, we were kind of, a little bit more along for the trip and this time, we know what to expect.”

No one from MHS broke through to the final rounds last time, Surprenant said, but everyone gained from the experience.

“I think it was just a good opportunity to feel out the tournament,” she said. “Having been there before, we know what to expect this year. We’re looking forward to that because we know what is going to happen going into it.”

Erickson, who will compete in Drama and Oratory at Harvard, said Minnesota students bring some weight with them to national tournaments.

“Minnesota is one of the strongest states for speech,” he said. “The people who do well at Harvard will do the best at nationals. We’re hoping for competitive success out there. We’re competing on a national circuit now. That’s big.”

As the MHS speech program has grown more and more successful, the need to seek a higher level of competition has arisen.

“We want bigger competition,” Erickson said. “Obviously, the Schwan’s tournament has been the biggest one we’ve had so far. That’s kind of like a stepping stone. Now it’s Harvard. We’re really excited.”

Erickson said he’s confident in each one of the MHS students who will be competing at Harvard.

“I don’t think there’s anyone stressing because they’re not prepared,” he said. “I feel like we’re all really solid on our speeches. And gauging from the past years we’ve went, I think I can do well and I think everyone on the team has a really good shot of doing pretty decent out there, too, definitely breaking to the first round or so.”

After four preliminary rounds of competition, events that have more than 300 entries will advance the top 98 contestants to the double-octa finals round. Other categories will break immediately to the octa finals (top 56), followed by quarterfinals (24), semifinals (12) and finals (6).

“Finals are held in gigantic Harvard lecture halls and are packed with spectators,” Purrington said. “All of the prelim rounds take place in small, beautiful, historic Harvard classrooms. Many of the rounds are held in Sever Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus built in 1878 and a US National Historic Landmark.”

Five categories – Original Oratory, Extemporaneous Speaking, Drama, Humorous and Duo – are offered at the Harvard tournament.

“Different regions do speech differently, so it’s really interesting seeing how they can interpret something or set up their argument for Oratory,” Erickson said. “You may love some things they do or you may hate some things they do, so it’s a nice melting pot of everything. You kind of see what works and doesn’t work and you can bring that back to your speech. That’s what I like about it.”

MHS senior Daniel Merna is headed to Harvard for the first time. While he also participates in Discussion during the speech season, he will only be competing in Oratory at Harvard.

“My piece is about over-analysis,” Merna said. “Oratory is a category where you have to persuade someone that something is an issue and then give the solution for it, basically.

“I talk about how we overanalyze. We teach against trusting our gut instincts in exchange for over-thinking everything because we’re afraid of getting something wrong.”

MHS junior Jessica Oaxaca is also a first-time Harvard attendee.

“I’m nervous, but more excited,” she said. “I’m most excited to see all the different competition. I think it’ll help me a lot, seeing a broader range of experienced speakers.”

Though Oaxaca is typically entered in Prose, she’ll be competing in Drama at the Harvard tournament.

“They’re pretty much the same thing, except where they come from,” Oaxaca said. “Drama pieces are from plays and prose are from books. My piece is a prose piece, but I’m competing in Drama.”

Oaxaca said her speech revolves around a woman who has ALS.

“She’s slowly dying, and wants to quickly squeeze in a love story,” Oaxaca said. “But it doesn’t really work out and she keeps on dying.”

Like Oaxaca, Merna is enthusiastic about being exposed to diverse opportunities.

“I’m looking forward to getting to meet all the different people from around the country, to see different pieces and speakers that we’ve never gotten to experience before and wouldn’t get to experience at any other tournament,” Merna said. “It’s the largest meet in the country.”

Touring Harvard University, the oldest higher learning institution in the United States, is another unique opportunity the students are looking forward to. The 210-acre campus is located in Cambridge, a little more than 3 miles northwest of downtown Boston.

“I think right away when we get there (today), we get to tour the campus,” Merna said. “It’s just so cool to think about, when you’re walking down the hallways, who else has walked down those hallways. So many important people have gone to Harvard.”

Having been at the Harvard tournament as a sophomore, Erickson said he knew he’d be returning as a senior. But it still feels strange, he said.

“For me personally, it’s a very surreal experience,” he said. “It’s surreal coming back to compete as seniors. It’s also surreal being in those rooms, where history has been made all over campus.”

Since Erickson planned to return to the huge tournament, saving money for the trip was made a priority.

“It’s every other year, so that helps,” he said. “But it’s a big trip.”

While fundraisers helped some, most of the trip expense fell on the students who chose to go. This past summer, Merna said, the team did a fundraiser with Runnings.

“We sorted pieces of paper from a contest that people entered to win a car,” he said. “We sorted thousands upon thousands of pieces of paper. We divided them between those that had an e-mail address and those that didn’t.”

“It was pretty tedious work,” Surprenant said. “We also did a Pizza Ranch fundraiser and lots of little things, but it’s still quite a bit of paying your own way.”

While team members are hoping for competitive success, they predicted that regardless, the experience would outweigh the cost of the trip.

“I’d definitely say it was worth it,” Merna said.

Purrington agreed, noting the trip would be a special experience for the entire team.

“Not only do these kids get to take in the splendor of the Harvard campus and the history of Boston, but just as important, they get to participate in an amazing speech competition like no other,” he said. “They will see speech students from all over the country, and they will come back with a great confidence that they are able to compete against the best.”

Also making the trip are Evans, Luke Schroeder, Alex Mathiowetz, Cassaundra Krogen, Aletta Arndt, Cassie Pieschke, Michelle Deutz, McKenzie Vermeire, Melissa Stassen, Seth McGonigle and Danny West.