Forensics team tops at state
For Tonganoxie High School forensics students, this year's success was as sweet as usual.
The team snagged a state championship.
And they kept up with Tonganoxie's longstanding tradition for stellar forensics results.
This was the school's second state championship win. And since 1997, the team has finished in the top three at state in every year except one.
Garrett Kelly just finished his third year in forensics and he plans to participate next year when he's a senior.
Kelly said he's thought about Tonganoxie's success in forensics, as well as debate, which Harrell also teaches.
"I would say it's that Tonganoxie has a tremendous talent pool," Kelly said. "Some of that can be attributed to Mr. Harrell, but we just have a lot of good people year after year -- we just have a lot of energy around this place."
Paige Robinson and Megan Holton, both juniors, said it works to their benefit that Tonganoxie forensics participants don black suits to wear to meets.
"We have a very serious demeanor," Robinson said. "I think it's the aura of the whole place, being in a cave, being in a black suit."
The "cave" Robinson refers to is what students call the forensics and debate classroom at Tonganoxie High School because it's a windowless room south of the THS gymnasium.
Holton said students from other schools certainly take notice when they see or hear about Tonganoxie.
"I was talking to one girl at state," Holton said. "I said I'm from Tonganoxie and she said, 'Oh my goodness, I hate their debate squad.' We have a reputation everywhere, it's kind of hard to beat."
Kelly said each year when seniors leave there's the thought that the team won't do as well.
"This year wasn't supposed to be that great for debate or forensics," Kelly said. "But we took state in both overall. It was like an underdog story both times, which was really nice. We pulled together in a clutch, which felt really good."
Kelly, who readily admits that at home with four siblings he's the "family clown," received a third place at state forensics for performing a satirical piece about smoking.
"I wanted to develop more of a character and I wanted it to be funny and it was pretty funny," Kelly said. "And it worked."
In appropriate terms, Robinson, who received a second place at state, described her forensics piece as "light and fluffy." Robinson wrote her a award-winning humorous talk, and it's all about pancakes.
"I talked about how hotcakes are like snowflakes," Robinson said. "No two are the same, and how I'm going to start my own business and get rich and famous from hotcakes."
On the other hand, Holton's talk, which placed third at state, was on the serious side. It was based on her own research about viruses such as Ebola and smallpox.
Though Holton said she learned more about medical conditions while writing her piece, during her two years in forensics she's also learned how to speak in front of people.
The most difficult lesson was in her own high school classroom -- performing in front of Steve Harrell.
He's a tough critic, she said.
"You can fill me a room full of judges and the smartest people in the world and I don't care," Holton said, her voice trailing off. "But Mr. Harrell -- oh man."
Robinson agreed, saying, "We know he's good and that makes us nervous."
While next year the team will have to perform without this year's seniors -- Shadoe Barton, Kaitie Pestock, Sandy Elliott, Robert Windler, Kate McCann, Lona Dickinson and Jeff Gravatt -- there's still one more chance to compete.
On Memorial Day weekend, these forensics and debate students will travel to Milwaukee to participate in the National Catholic Forensics League tournament, Shadoe Barton, Kaitie Pestock, Garrett Kelly, Jeff Gravatt, Zach Pistora, Tyler Truesdell and Ben Jefferies.