State champions emerge from uncertain season

Jan Garrison

Speech team celebrates 25th


March 31, 2021

When Culver Academies Speech Coach Mitch Barnes was heading into his 25th year at the helm of the program last fall, he had a few questions: like would there even be a speech program, or any place for the team, and how would they compete due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So here’s my 25th anniversary and we are dealing with this,” he said. “I don’t even know if we’re going to have a season.”

There were a lot of holes to fill. The team lost a lot of quality competitors through graduation, people who didn’t get the opportunity to vie for a state championship because of the pandemic. School was suspended just after the team had qualified 40 entries for the state tournament. Then some returning students decided not to come out because of the uncertain nature of how the season would evolve.

“We were much smaller this year and I was like ‘Oh wow!” he said. Especially after “we got our brains beat out' in a virtual meet at Calvin, Illinois, before Thanksgiving break. I was just, ‘Is this the way this is going to be?’”

Peaking at right time

But following that disastrous virtual competition and a long holiday weekend to mentally recover, “we started getting some momentum.” On Dec. 12, the team competed at Warsaw and finished second. Then, after the long winter break, the team finished fourth at Penn and took first at the next three meets hosted by Evansville, Crown Point, and Rossville.

A big test came when the team participated in the tournament conducted by Columbus East. With 44 teams and 385 individual competitors, Barnes called it “a meat grinder. It’s like, ‘OK, let’s see how we match up. But it was also the week before the state prelims.”

Culver finished fourth overall and Barnes knew the team was peaking at the right time.

The team continued to ride that momentum to its fifth Class A state championship. Culver also took fifth place finish overall among the more than 100 schools participating in the Indiana High School Forensic Association tournament. The IHSFA used a special format this year because of the social distancing requirements. There were three preliminary rounds on one weekend, a break, then quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals.

State finalists (from left) Fisher Xiong, Drew Seddelmeyer, Ella Campbell and Abby Krouse.

Of Culver’s 31 entries, 20 broke into the top 24 of their categories, Barnes said, and 12 of those broke through to the semifinal round. Then four entries finished in the top six. Drew Seddelmeyer ’21 (Culver) was runner-up in Original Performance; Fisher Xiong ’22 (Beijing) was fifth in U.S. Extemporaneous; and Abby Krouse ’23 (Valparaiso, Indiana) and Ella Campbell ’23 (Columbus, Indiana) were sixth in Duo Interpretation.

Barnes credits the four team captains, Seddelmeyer, Sherry Xie ’21 (Shanghai), Peter Alfaro’21 (Mars, Pennsylvania) and Henry Bilsland ’21 (Castle Rock, Colorado) with carrying the team through the tough times. Seddelmeyer “willed this season to happen,” he said, and Xie coached other students in extemporaneous and competed in the first couple of meets while she was still home in China. “And when she got here (after winter break), she took off.”

Pandemic benefits

The pandemic did benefit the team in an odd way. Since everything was done virtually, that eliminated the early morning bus rides and box meals. The team was able to meet for breakfast in the Lay Dining Hall and walk over to the Eppley Hall of Humanities. They would then eat lunch together and when the meet was over, there was no long bus ride back home.

And since there was no travel involved, Barnes was able to enter the team in tournaments outside their normal range. The Illinois and Evansville tournaments would have been out-of-reach under normal conditions.

After the first meets in November and early December, the IHSFA started using a program developed by the National Speech and Debate organization. It was very similar to Zoom, he explained, and since the students were already familiar with the format it was easy for them to make the transition to it.

The biggest hurdle came with the duo competition, Barnes said. The students were actually in separate rooms but would share the screen with the judge. It was important to figure out “who would enter the room first,” he explained, because that would put the person on the left side of the computer screen. The second person would be on the right side.

It was an important detail that had to be worked out because presentations like Krouse and Campbell’s would not work otherwise. Coach Lou Canelli worked with them to get that virtual entrance right.

Alumni support

Another benefit was the availability of alumni to judge the meets. Since everything was virtual, alumni were able to judge competitors from their homes on Saturdays.

“This was my first year in 25 years where I haven’t had to beg for judges,” Barnes said. “A lot of our speech team alumni just came out of the woodwork. We had alumni judging for us from Canada, Washington state, California, Florida, Ohio, St. Louis and Chicago.”

It was nice to reconnect those alumni with the program and “it really helped the team.” It also gave Barnes an idea of connecting alumni with individual competitors just before the state finals. He sent emails asking different alumni to reach out to students who were competing in their specialty. It was a “we’ve been in your shoes” message and wishing them good luck.

“I wish I had thought of it earlier,” he said, saying the alumni jumped at the opportunity. “It’s been awesome to get so many of them involved this year."

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