Rise of a Program: Speech and debate at AHS enjoying a resurgence

Published 5:51 pm Friday, March 11, 2022

To make a speech or to take part in a debate requires poise, critical thinking skills and above all confidence — all things the Austin High School speech and debate team is once again discovering.

After a number of years without a team, AHS is once again building a program that is enjoying something of a renaissance.

“I hope so,” said coach and Austin High School teacher Daniel Hansen. “I know these guys are really excited about what we’re doing and very enthusiastic, both in their participation and spreading the word.”

For a number of years after 2003, AHS had no speech program. Despite being in a state that has one of the strongest speech-debate traditions in the nation, AHS was suddenly missing from that competition.

However, in 2019 Hanson, along with Joey Kretchman-Grande, reformed the team along with then student Ike McIntosh.

And there was no easing into it.

“Our first year, in 2019, that’s what we did,” Hanson said. “We did hit the ground running. We had a lot of success early on. We had a really enthusiastic group of seniors.”

The Austin speech team is featured in a photo from a meet at Rochester John Marshall. Photo provided

McIntosh was a sophomore when he joined the team, bringing with him a list of around 30 students who had an interest in joining.

Not only did it prove to be interesting to McIntosh, it helped him in the classroom as well.

“For me, I think it kind of straightened me out,” said McIntosh, who is now an assistant coach on the team. “I wasn’t exactly well behaved in high school. I did a lot of slacking off, not paying attention in classes. My junior and senior year my GPA started increasing a lot. I started focusing on classes, paying attention to my teachers, arguing less.”

Students can speak in a number of different categories opening up a wide world of topics. Likewise, debate can also encompass a wide range of topics, forcing the student into situations that require critical thinking.

Current Austin City Council member and Director of Corporate Strategy for Hormel Jason Baskin, was a member of both speech and debate from 1999 through to his graduation in 2002.

Baskin enjoyed success at state in both debate and speech, but it was as in  extemporaneous speaking that he claimed a state title and went on to finish seventh in the nation.

Of the many skills he brought out of high school with him, Baskin credits those skills he learned in speech and debate as being the most important.

“The biggest thing it gave me was confidence and critical thinking skills,” he said. “I probably used the skills I learned in speech and debate more today more than any other activity or class I’ve done.”

That’s a theme that’s being echoed by today’s current participants. Junior co-captain Krista Cook is one of those students that has felt the rise in her overall confidence by stepping into and facing those hurdles that have been a challenge for her.

“I still get super bad anxiety with it today,” she said. “Doing this is very difficult. Now, I’m much more assertive than I was. If [someone] gets my order wrong, I’m able to voice that now. It’s super helpful just to be able to talk to other people.”

Aside from the personal skills, the team is also seeing the fruits of their labors in competition.

More and more ribbons are coming the student’s way.

“It’s been so fun,” Hanson said. “Just watching them get excited about it. We had kids at our most recent tournament making finals for the first time, winning their first ribbons. It’s extremely rewarding. I love it.”

Among those winning their first ribbon is Afi Adjowui, who is in her first year and who joined the team after seeing a note on the wall at school.

“It showed me how to build my English skills, because it’s not my first language,” she said. “It helped me talk in front of other people. I needed that.”

Along the way, the students in AHS’ speech and debate program have found a common bond together, something Baskin himself found when he was in speech.

“My biggest takeaway from it is the confidence of knowing I was in a group I fit in,” Baskin said. “There are friendships that still last today. It’s so cool because a lot of these people have gone on to be highly accomplished members of our country.”

AHS’ other junior co-captain, Anna Gil, has experienced just that during her time with the team.

“It was actually a little bit overwhelming at first,” Gil said. “I knew all of these people before, but knowing they may be joining the team and I would be helping them out being with them and watching them grow … whoa, interesting.”

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the loss of a couple students when everything went to video, but the speech and debate team continues looking for new members, however, and Hanson has hopes of visiting Ellis Middle School with some members of his team to introduce students to what could be waiting for them at the high school.

“It’s not without bumps in the road,” Hanson said. “We’ve got a bunch of seniors this  year who are actually first-year participants. You wish you could reach them a little earlier on, but we’ll take them whenever we can get them.”

Coach Daniel Hanson introduces your 2021-22 Packers Speech and Debate Team

Anna Gil – 11th grade

Anna participates in Discussion and is our team captain. She’s highly motivated and a great support to her teammates. As the coach, I feel lucky to have someone like her leading the team.

Krista Cook – 11th grade

Krista also participates in Discussion and is a co-captain with Anna. She also enjoys writing Original Oratory speeches. I could see her doing one next year.

Caden Strampe – 12th grade

Caden participates in Humorous Interpretation. I started recruiting him from my Language Arts class last year and finally got him this year. He’s a total character with a unique sense of humor that comes out in his piece.

Nels Nelson – 12th grade

Nels also participates in Humorous Interpretation. They approached me about joining Speech after learning about the team through Anna. They’re truly hilarious and a naturally talented actor.

Syrian Rabideau – 11th grade

Syrian participates in Informative Speaking. He’s another one that I recruited from my Sophomore Language Arts class. He’s such a thoughtful person and based his speech off of the content we were discussing in class.

Namo Afanou – 10th grade

Namo participates in Informative Speaking. She learned about the team during our enrichment courses at the beginning of the school year. She jumped right in and wrote an Informative speech on the history of Capitalism.

Afi Adjowui – 11th grade

Afi also participates in Informative Speaking. She is one of the most determined competitors I’ve ever seen and works incredibly hard at her craft. She made the finals for the first time just recently.

Nawras Zaki – 10th grade

Nawras participates in Discussion. She’s done a fabulous job developing as a speaker. She stops in at least once a week to do a mock discussion with me and her teammates. She’s also prepping an Informative Speech for next year.