Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Moorhead High School’s winningest team doesn’t wear helmets or play with pucks. They don’t shoot three-pointers or ace volleyballs. Their boosters are avid and animated and even cheer loudly, but they never see their victories lauded in headlines on the sports section. In fact, the classmates who sit beside them may not realize they’re champions at all.
But they’re champions just the same … champions of a calibre that regularly stuns their competition across the state of Minnesota. For the seventh consecutive year, the MHS speech team has brought home the state title – the Minnesota State High school League Class AA State Team Championship. The Spuds took home 17 medals at the tournament in the Twin Cities, the fourth highest total at a single tournament in MSHSL history.
That brings their total to 34 state championships and 260 team medals, the all-time third highest total in Class AA. So far.
Nineteen Spuds have been crowned state champions in their categories since 2016, the state’s highest total in those years. MHS speakers have received 106 medals in the same period; the schools closest to matching their record are Apple Valley with 76, and Eagan with 70.
Not only that. Eighteen Spuds are headed to the national Tournament of Champions this weekend and the National Speech and Debate Association final next month in Phoenix. The MHS team has received the association’s “Speech School of Excellence” award for 11 years running.
Rebecca Meyer-Larson’s pride in the teens who, year after year, take top honors in speech competitions knows no bounds. “I am the luckiest, luckiest, luckiest coach in the world,” the drama and speech coach declares. In a Facebook post after last year’s triumphant season, she explained, “I lead a team full of artists who choose creation over destruction, make me laugh,and fill my heart with so much pride. Coaching the Spud speech team has been my life’s work and one of my greatest joys as, season after season, I get to watch young people discover the beauty of their voices.”
The Spud speech dynasty can be traced back to shortly after she joined the MHS faculty 33 years ago. She was freshly graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead in theatre, English and speech, hired to succeed Harlan Shuck, another well-loved coach but whose forte was debate.
“When I started, there were only three on the speech team, all in extemporaneous.” (That’s the event in which contestants prepare a speech on the spot and deliver it without notes.)
Now extemp draws the smallest number of competitors. The MHS team – 70-some members in 2023 – competes in all 13 categories and, at last month’s state tournament won or placed in all of them.
Rebecca’s enthusiasm for the … well, can we call it “sport”? … blossomed back in high school at Audubon, Minnesota. “I loved speech in high school. I loved the category ‘creative expression,’” she recounts. “There was no library of materials in our small school, so I wrote it myself. I did pretty well, too, but I wasn’t nearly as successful as my team members are.”
The Moorhead contingent started showing up in the record books five years after she arrived, splitting her time between teaching honors English to sophomores, directing the fall musical and then launching the speech season with tryouts, she says, “the minute that the musical is over.” The Spuds topped the Region 8AA tournament for the first time in 1995. “I’m a nervous wreck the the kids are competing. Just ask them,” she confides. “I generate enough nervousness that they don’t need to.”
She needn’t have worried. The Moorhead team has topped Region 8AA for each of the past 28 years, topping competitors from Bemidji, Brainerd, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Alexandria, Little Falls and several others.
Meyer-Larson’s speech teams work out as hard and as regularly as any inspired athletes. That means daily practice: “Our motto is ‘champions by choice,’” the coach says. “They make the choice every day to practice. They make the choice to read their critiques and take them to heart to get stronger. They build a strong community with lots of pairing and sharing. They’re awesome kids who know the power of using their words to change the world.”
A bus pulls up to Moorhead High after classes almost every Friday as team members board to spend that night and Saturday competing against teams across the state, mostly in the Twin Cities. “That’s where the best competition is. Iron sharpens steel. We have to be ready to compete with the best in the nation,” Meyer-Larson comments. The teens spend Friday night practicing until 11, then get up by 6:30 the next morning to jump on the bus to that days competition.
She applauds her team’s parents. “We have an awesome parent support group,” she notes. “They’re the key to our success. It’s not easy to put your kid on a bus every Friday and pick them up late Saturday. It’s not cheap, either. But they’re as supportive and excited for our success as any group of hockey parents could be.”
Noting that their team of champions lacked the hoopla that surrounds other sports, an “angel sponsor” took the entire team to Buca di Beppo after their latest triumph. “It was like our own sports banquet,” she laughs.
The trophies crowd the small room where the speech team gathers – so many that the walls and shelves are quite inadequate. But they’re not the real goal or the biggest benefit of competing in speech. Meyer-Larson says, “Winning is nice, but there’s so much more. We teaching them to be kids of character, kids of class … wordsmiths and world changers.
“For me, the best part is seeing how they support each other,” she muses. They celebrate those whose scores mean they break into the next round, but they also rally around those who aren’t on the list. Watching how they support and embrace those kids who didn’t get there is a really beautiful moment.
“The benefit of speech is that it doesn’t really matter if you win or lose. We’re preparing young people to face the fear in America, to not be afraid to stand up and speak. It creates kids of incredible character.”
She reflects on the low profile that speech plays in the high school pantheon of high-profile sports heroes. “These are a humble group of artists and advocates. For the most part, nobody has a clue that the kid they sit beside in class is brave and articulate enough to stand in front of thousands of people and share their truth.
“They’re going to change the world … one word at a time.”
More information on the MHS speech team’s winning record can be found at www.spudspeech.org.