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Kalispell’s Great Debaters
Kalispell’s storied speech and debate teams get ready to host State AA Tournament on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1
Sophomore Daniel Sierra practices his 10-minute speech during speech and debate team practice at Flathead High School on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Walking into Flathead High School room PA30 is like stepping into an oversized trophy case. Plaques and awards are everywhere, adorning every nook and cranny, showcasing a century of speech and debate success in Kalispell.

Hanging from the ceiling are posters representing every winning team the school has produced since Mr. Jessen led Daniel Korn, Elsie Price and Melinda Alexander to victory in 1915.

“Tradition,” said English teacher and speech and debate coach Shannon O’Donnell. “It’s a big tradition here.”

O’Donnell’s students and those at nearby Glacier High School hope to build on that tradition on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 when the State AA Tournament returns to Kalispell for the first time since 2007. Fourteen schools across the state will compete at the event at Glacier High, and both of Kalispell’s teams are considered forces to be reckoned with. Glacier has won the state championship three years in a row. But Flathead is nipping at its heels this season and bested its crosstown rival at competitions in Missoula, Libby and Helena.

Most speech and debate competitions are made up of 12 different events, including impromptu and prepared speeches and formal one-on-one debates.

“It’s kind of like track, there are different (events) and skills for different people,” said Glacier head coach Greg Adkins.

Adkins was head coach at Flathead – where he was associated with 12 different state championships, including nine as head coach, one as assistant coach and two as a team member – before moving to Glacier in 2007. He first got into speech and debate because of the competition involved and stuck with it through college, which is how he ended up coaching.

“I knew pretty quickly that this is what I wanted to do,” he said.

Adkins’ departure following the 2006-2007 season was a blow to Flathead’s program. When O’Donnell, who’s coached in Butte and at Flathead, became head coach in 2012, there were just 40 students involved. But after a year of work, nearly 130 students signed on at the beginning of this season.

“It takes a shameless person to recruit students,” she said. “But you really get to know the kids and fall in love with them.”

But there are advantages for students, too, and O’Donnell said that many of her speech and debate kids are better prepared for college and careers. She recalled one student she coached in Butte who was accepted by Stanford because of speech and debate.

“People assume that speech and debate kids are hard workers, good writers and good communicators,” she said. “I don’t care what you do for a living, you speak.”

O’Donnell is a convincing recruiter who writes letters to potential team members and even tracks them down in school. That’s how she got Maija Hadwin, a sophomore, to join the team last year. Hadwin said before attending high school, friends, family and teachers all told her she should join speech and debate, but she declined. Then she met O’Donnell and her outlook on the sport has changed significantly.

Flathead High School speech and debate head coach Shannon O'Donnell on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beac

Hadwin has been on the varsity team for two years and will likely be one of the students representing Flathead at the state tournament.

“It’s the best decision I’ve made since being in high school and nothing is going to make me quit,” she said. “I love meeting new people and making new friends. I love challenging myself and putting my nerves to the test.”

Memorizing a presentation isn’t easy either. Daniel Sierra is also a sophomore and had to write and memorize a 10-minute, 1,500-word speech about values. Sierra, who is originally from Colombia, repeats lines of the speech over and over again until its forever cemented in his mind.

The process is much the same for Kodee Wagner, who recently spent her Wednesday afternoon practicing her expository speech about 99942 Apophis, a near-Earth asteroid that will pass our home planet in 2029, 2032 and 2036, and if it strikes could destroy life as we know it. Last year, Wagner’s speech focused on the Yellowstone Super Volcano. Her fixation on events that could destroy everyone and everything around us has earned her the nickname “doomsday girl.”

Ironically, her speech on the Yellowstone Volcano last year was incredibly well received in Bozeman, a place that would be obliterated and reduced to ash if it were to ever erupt.

“I don’t know why they liked it so much, I mean I was telling them how they are going to die,” Wagner said.

Both of Flathead and Glacier’s speech and debate programs are among the biggest in the state of Montana and O’Donnell credits the community and its support. Her students, and the ones over at Glacier, hope to do that tradition justice this week.

“There’s an amazing history of speech and debate in Kalispell,” she said. “The community is willing to invest in this program.”
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