Park ‘Speechies’ Unite! Remembering 40 Winning Years

Author’s note: As a parent of two “speechies” from 2004-06 when the team won its 25th, 26th and 27th state championships, I surely concur with the praise doled out here for the coaches. And I know that my kids learned so many lessons, many of which have carried on into their adult lives. I remember shopping for suits, listening to practice sessions, judging at various tournaments and holding my breath. …

Every March, students, teachers, coaches and parents sit on the edge of their seats for the announcement at the close of the West Virginia State Speech and Debate Tournament.

Waiting to hear, not their name, but the name of the other team, the team that would come in second. And, then, there it is — the eruption of cheers and screams and applause and tears.

Hours and hours of writing, memorizing, practicing and competing have led to this moment of excitement and pride and relief — relief that the streak continues, the title safe for another year.

And it happened for the 40th time for the Wheeling Park High School Speech and Debate Team on March 23 at Marshall University.

Wheeling Park High School’s 2019 Speech and Debate Team

In celebration of all 40 years of championships, Gail Adams, involved first as a parent, then as a coach, is hoping to gather some of the hundreds of students, coaches and parents who helped to keep the streak alive. “A Remarkable Reunion” is set for Saturday, April 13, at the high school.

“Earlier this school year, as the team began its journey to 40, I thought about how many people it has taken throughout the years to create this remarkable dynasty,” said Adams, who is now an innovation coach for Ohio County Schools.

“The more I thought about it, I realized members of the early championship teams are now in their 50s. Some former and present coaches are even older than that. I thought if ever a reunion were to be held, it would be better to do it sooner rather than later. While each championship is special in its own right, people celebrate milestones in decades, so I thought this would be the perfect year to celebrate the accomplishments of the teams: past, present and future,” she said.

“A Remarkable Reunion” will take place from 6-9 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at Wheeling Park High School. The evening will start with a buffet dinner catered by Ye Olde Alpha, followed by a presentation of 40 years in pictures as well as performances by some current and recent team members in the Phyllis A. Beneke Theater. Tickets can be purchased online or in person at the OCS Board of Education Office or at Wheeling Park High School. The deadline for reservations is April 10. The event is open to coaches, team members, former team members, judges and their guests. Visit the Facebook event for more information.

Many former students and coaches are excited about attending the reunion, saying they “wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Some of them shared with Weelunk thoughts and memories about their years involved with the Wheeling Park High Speech and Debate Team.

It was in 1980 that the Wheeling Park Speech Team won its first state title. (Photo provided by Gail Adams)


You can’t talk about the team without talking about the coaches — and everyone talks about Miss Schoolcraft. (She, however, recalls her coaching partners — David Jolliffe, Sandy Mauck, Melody Meadows and Bill Cornforth.)

Now enjoying retirement in the Ohio Valley, Fran Schoolcraft’s history is as tied to the team as a tetherball to its post. Involved from the very beginning, she coached small teams at Triadelphia High School before WPHS opened in 1976.

“When viewing the history of the speech and debate team, Fran Schoolcraft’s role must be given full acclaim,” said Bill Cornforth, team coach since Miss Schoolcraft’s retirement in 2004.

“She founded Wheeling Park’s team in its first year (1976) and remained head coach for the first 25 state championships from 1980 through 2004. She was an outstanding teacher and coach, creating the tone of the team based around a strong work ethic, and team building. I came aboard as a theater teacher and assistant speech coach in 1979 and have been head coach since Fran’s retirement 15 years ago. But Fran established the core value of striving for excellence. Team members since then have carried on that tradition.”

Fran Schoolcraft and Bill Cornforth (Photo by Allison O’Konski)

“I have yet to meet anyone who has influenced my professional life more than Fran Schoolcraft,” said Allison O’Konski, co-captain ’04. “My respect and appreciation for her are endless.”

Susan Fox-Nolte, class of ’87, is the human resource director for Ohio County Schools, and is “so proud to be a member of this team,” she said. “Forever Miss Schoolcraft to me. … [she] is one of the best teachers I had.”

Tiffany Lee Popson, ’05, recalls Miss Schoolcraft’s “check-off” routine — as did several other former “speechies.” Before a competition, each team member had to perform their pieces for her, receive notes, then correct the issues before being cleared for the upcoming contest, Popson explained.

“Once the adjustments had been corrected, we each got a sticker for our speech folder,” Popson said. “Her most famous quote was centered around this check-off process — ‘It’s not the only day, it’s just the last day.’ We were high school students who procrastinated everything. If we were given a week to do our check-off, of course, we all waited until the day before to get our approval. … For our check-off sticker for states her last year at Park, she had stickers made with her picture on them that said, ‘It’s not the only tournament, it’s just the last tournament!’”

Tiffany Lee Popson’s folder, left, and Tiffany with her first-place plaque.

Brigitte Mazure, ’84, coach, parent and former team member, said “that check mark meant everything.” She added that Miss Schoolcraft shaped her “as an individual performer as well as the kind of coach I am for the team today. She expected our best in practices as well as in competitions. I well remember when it was my time to give performances in her office in hopes of getting ‘checked off’ as ready to go to a tournament. …I tell our students to treat every practice as a round of competition and to always give their all.”

Miss Schoolcraft is not the only coach upon whom former team members heap praise.

“I am incredibly and forever grateful to head Coach Bill Cornforth for believing I would be an asset to the coaching staff. Kayla Nelson and Isabella Droginske are incredible to work with and the four of us, combined with our coaching styles, complement each other and the team,” Brigitte Mazure said.

Senior co-captain, Eli Lambie, ’12, recalls his time practicing with Mr. Cornforth. “He was able to motivate me unlike anyone else, to dig deep and find a personal connection with the characters in my stories.”

“Mr. Cornforth was always willing to answer questions. He was equal-measures encouraging and pushing. I always felt prepared and confident because he pushed us to that point. And as an adult, I see now what a special person it takes to work so closely for so long with teenagers! I may admire his dedication more now than I did in high school,” said debate team member Stacey Sacco, ’99.

“The coaches that were most involved when I was on the team were, of course, the infamous Bill Cornforth and Gail Adams. I have so many incredible memories about time spent with both of them,” said Riley (Bonar) Carpenter, ’10. “I remember sitting in one of the side classrooms off the theater and Miss A explaining to me why ‘anyways’ isn’t a word. To this day, it is one of my biggest pet peeves.

“And oh, the memories with Mr. Cornforth,” she continued, “from hearing ‘Garbage, garbage, get your garbage here’ in the thickest New York accent [while] walking up and down the bus aisle as you take the last bite of your raw bagel … to that warm smile that slowly turns to a half-open mouth smile he gave when you finally nailed that part in your speech or interpretation [for which] you had been getting ‘It’s just not believable enough yet.’… They were the MOST AMAZING coaches and life mentors I’ve had to this day. I am still friends with both of them and honestly couldn’t imagine my life without them,” Carpenter said.

“And oh, the memories with Mr. Cornforth … that warm smile that slowly turns to a half-open mouth smile he gave when you finally nailed that part in your speech or interpretation [for which] you had been getting ‘It’s just not believable enough yet.’” — Riley Carpenter

Melody Meadows, teacher, former coach and mother of team member Tiffany Lee Popson, noted that Mr. Cornforth had the “unenviable task” of taking over the head coach responsibilities after Miss Schoolcraft retired. Mr. Cornforth had previously coached debate, so “the first year without Fran was a big learning curve for all of us. We stuck to the ‘Schoolcraft’ traditions (checking-off, loading the bus, sophomores bringing the food, following a certain rehearsal schedule) and brought home the 26th state championship.

“I cannot speak enough of my admiration for Bill, also,” Meadows said. “His devotion to the program and the students has brought it continued success. I know how much work it is. He certainly doesn’t do it for money or recognition (both of these are negligible). … I cannot imagine the program without Fran or Bill.

“When I saw him this summer at a speech fundraiser, he was still crediting Fran with the program’s overall success,” she continued. “I know she started it. I know she made it what it is. However, he lovingly took it and nurtured it.

“Finally, both Fran and Bill are incredibly humble about their part in the team’s success. They credit the team members. The members certainly do put in a lot of work, and they are the ones dealing with the nuts and bolts of a competition. However, Fran (and then Bill) made the machine run. And it ran better and for longer than any machine of its kind. Ever.”

“Fran (and then Bill) made the machine run. And it ran better and for longer than any machine of its kind. Ever.” — Melody Meadows


Parents of team members deserve a lot of credit, too, according to the coaches. Parents serve as competition judges (not for their own teams, of course) throughout the year, they cheer on the kids, and they provide the all-important snacks for long bus rides.

“Without parents volunteering to be judges at tournaments (judges for which we provided some training), the team could not have enjoyed the same success or had as many team members,” Melody Meadows said. “Many parents got on that school bus on a Saturday morning at 5:30 a.m. and didn’t get home until 11:30 that night. Forty years of team members owe these volunteers a debt of gratitude.”

Miss Schoolcraft agreed. “All the parents who helped as judges behind the scenes — we could not have done it without them.”


Miss Schoolcraft summed up years of success in five points. But probably what looms largest is that no team wanted to be the one to end the streak.

“The team has been successful throughout the years for several reasons. One, success breeds success. Two, we always pushed the students to do more than they thought they could do. Three, we coached from the top down. Older students coached younger students, and it worked. Four, supportive administration. Five, no team wanted to be the team that lost,” she said.

“In 1980, we won the first state championship. Another school had the record at nine years, but we stopped them when we won in ’80. At first, when we kept winning, other teams would refer to us as ‘the team of the ’80s.’ Fooled them. We kept going,” she said.

“At first, when we kept winning, other teams would refer to us as ‘the team of the ’80s.’ Fooled them. We kept going.” — Fran Schoolcraft 

And how do they keep going?

“A lot of work and a fear of losing,” Mr. Cornforth said. “The students put in the necessary research, writing and practicing because no wants to be the first to lose the state championship, and they know striving to win every other tournament will lead to winning states. But aside from the streak, they gain the intrinsic motivation to be the best for themselves and for their team.”

The trophy case at Wheeling Park High School is full of plaques, trophies and photos of the speech and debate team. (Photo provided by Gail Adams)

Two seniors on this year’s state championship team shared their thoughts about winning.

Team tri-captain, Maria Goudy, attributes winning to “the dedication to this team and the hard work put in by the students. … Each person plays a pivotal role to the success of the team. We push each other to be the best that we can possibly be at all times. Much of the success is also due to the dedication and hard work of our coaches. They pour hours of their lives into ensuring our success. Without their constant support, enthusiasm and motivation, we would be nowhere as successful as we are. The last thing that makes us so successful is the thought of upholding this tradition and make those who came before us and those who will come after us proud. This legacy is so important to so many people, and it has always been our goal to make sure that it stays alive for those people.”

“I think the answer is simple. Our season never really ends. We start preparing for the next season immediately after states is over,” said Morgan Marquart, a division leader. “We know that we have to put in a lot of work throughout the year to get the results we want, but I think one of our favorite sayings, ‘Practice like you’ve never won, perform like you’ve never lost,’ also helps explain the amount of work and confidence we have to put into our pieces and events. During practice, we are always rehearsing, researching or writing for our events, and sometimes we will stay as late as we have to to get as much practice in as we can.”

“Practice like you’ve never won, perform like you’ve never lost.” — A team mantra

Winning those individual events is great, Marquart said, but that “doesn’t compare to just being able to say that I am a part of such an outstanding legacy. When they announce the first-place team, time seems to stop, and we all just breathe a sigh of relief because we finally know that all the hard work has paid off. I love celebrating with my team when we’ve put in the work and received the results we worked for.”


There are several mother/daughter, mother/son, father/daughter pairs who have been involved with the team over the years.

Melody Meadows and Gail Adams had dual roles — as parents and on the coaching staff. Brigitte Mazure was a triple threat — team member, coach and parent.

Vance and Brigitte Mazure

“To share this experience with my son, Vance, has been a blessing,” said Mazure. “I am in a unique position, one that I am not sure many, if any, others have had the privilege to enjoy. I am a legacy member, the mother of a team captain and an assistant coach.

“At times, I found I was walking a fine line in that other parents could unreservedly show their joy for their children’s accomplishments, but I had to exhibit restraint as a coach maintaining a certain level of decorum (while inside, I was screaming at the top of my lungs!) To watch from across a room as Vance waited to see if he broke to finals, with an all-too-familiar lump in my throat, and have him turn to catch my eye and give me an almost imperceptible nod of a yes, contained a mix of long-ago memories and a present-moment sense of happiness for him. That one glance conveyed so much more than any casual observer could ever hope to understand. There have been many such glances over the past three years. I did not take a single one for granted,” she said.

Melody Meadows, left, and Tiffany Lee Popson

“My daughter, Tiffany Lee Popson, competed from 2003-05,” Meadows said. “What was most impactful was the difference it made in our relationship. I wasn’t just her ‘mom.’ She got to see what I did, and it developed in her a respect for me that is sometimes uncommon for parents of teenagers. Our speech team memories have also become fond shared experiences for the two of us.”

Gail Adams, left, and Allison O’Konski

Adams’ involvement started as a parent during her daughter’s years at the high school. “Throughout her years (2002-04) on the team, I was a parent volunteer, judging at tournaments. During those years, I was pursuing a degree in secondary English education at West Liberty State College (now University). I graduated college in 2004, the same year Allison [O’Konski] graduated WPHS.”

That was also the year Miss Schoolcraft retired from teaching.

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“With Ms. Schoolcraft’s retirement, Mrs. Sandy Mauck, assistant speech team coach, transferred from the theater to the English Language Arts department at Park. That created two openings in the theater/speech area. Mr. Bill Cornforth, who had been the debate coach/teacher, was hired to fill the head speech coach/teaching position. I was hired to fill the assistant speech coach/teaching position. I stayed in that position for seven years,” Adams said.

Jeremy Richter and Faith Richter

Jeremy Richter’s daughter Faith Richter helped bring home the team’s 40th championship, while Jeremy was on the winning team in 1993-95. “Being on the team helped Faith find things within herself that I don’t know any of us would have expected until much later in life. The mentorship of Cornforth and his kind, faithful, confidence in her helped her more publicly show an intense drive and work ethic. She tried so many new things while on the team; some of those things made her feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable. Learning to embrace those moments, and work through them rather than run the other way, has helped her grow as a person, performer and collaborator.”

Richter remembers winning championship No. 16. “I was co-captain with my best friend and duo partner, Derek Redd. That team was incredibly tight, much like this year’s group. Everyone supported one another, whether helping write speeches and intros, watching rounds, tying ties or boosting another’s confidence after a bad round.”

“I am thrilled that my youngest daughter is on debate team now. I got to go back as a judge this year,” said Susan Fox-Nolte, whose daughter Lauren Fox is a sophomore.

Coaching two generations is “very special,” Cornforth said. “That is the symbol of the legacy.”


Miss Schoolcraft said that she “always thought the speech team brought a positive image to Park not just by their winnings but by the speech team members’ behavior.”

“I believe the team is a great source of pride for Park and also for Ohio County Schools,” said Gail Adams. “The team members come into this program knowing they have a legacy to uphold. That is a daunting task, yet they do it willingly and amazingly year after year.”

“One thing that I really think this team does for the school is help people understand that students can be successful, competitive, and dedicated without being exclusively a member of a sports team. I would hope that it gives the school a sense of pride for the artistic and academic accomplishments of its students as well,” Park senior Morgan Marquart said.

“One thing that I really think this team does for the school is help people understand that students can be successful, competitive, and dedicated without being exclusively a member of a sports team. I would hope that it gives the school a sense of pride for the artistic and academic accomplishments of its students as well.”  — Morgan Marquart

“I think these championships build school morale,” Mr. Cornforth said. “The record is a source of pride for everyone. Teachers and administrators are certainly congratulatory toward their students, and students humbly appreciate the recognition.”

One of the best examples of positive spirit, Mr. Cornforth said, is the annual police and sheriff’s departments’ escort of the team bus and convoy of parents’ cars through town. This year — as usual — there were “sirens blaring while a crowd of family members, teachers, administrators and friends cheered the team with posters, balloons, music, confetti, and even fireworks. It was an amazing celebration,” he said.


Abby (Mathieu) Swalga believes she’s stronger because of her time on the speech team. Leland Wheeler learned to take risks. Riley Carpenter has become an innovative leader.

Other life lessons cited by team members are pride, camaraderie, teamwork, preparedness, respect, confidence, losing and, of course, the all-important skill of public speaking.

“This program creates young adults who can stand in front of people and speak with confidence, clarity and conviction. It creates individuals who know how to tap into their inner strength to accomplish their goals. The program prepares students for their next steps in life,” Gail Adams said.

“Being on the speech team made me a stronger person all around,” said Abby Swalga, class of 2010. “It taught me how to dress and act professional, first and foremost. What other high school kids are wearing suits, tights and pumps every Saturday? I also learned what it’s like to be part of a team. We all had to show up for one another, work hard and hold each other accountable. Looking back, it is so amazing how a group of high school kids cared so much and worked so hard to achieve a common goal.”

It also made her a better public speaker and writer, she said. “This past year, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at my college’s convocation ceremony, and I definitely pulled out some of my old speech skills. Those memories definitely served me well. Not only that, I went into communications for my profession (communications manager at a local nonprofit organization in Pittsburgh called Pennsylvania Women Work), where I do a lot of writing and speaking every day,” Swalga said.

Abby Swalga with coaches Gail Adams and Bill Cornforth.

“I learned to take risks and push boundaries,” said Leland Wheeler, class of 2006, who is living in Los Angeles. “It didn’t really pay off during speech team — [he points to his receding awards: state champ his sophomore year, fifth his senior year] — but it has in life. Be bold, take risks, do your best and be a respectful team player. Those are the things you can control. You can’t control what the judges will think; you can’t control most aspects of life. Be confident in your choices and your work.”

Riley Carpenter said she is always sharing with friends and family how being on the speech team has helped her through the years. “The first time I really noticed the true impact it had on me was when I was preparing for my first job interview — actually in Ohio County Schools. Being an elementary teacher, I am constantly on stage for my kids — much like I was on stage during my time on the speech team. I feel 100 percent comfortable speaking in front of people, of all ages, thanks to the amazing leadership skills I developed during high school. This has helped me to become an innovative leader in my school and become the faculty senate chairman as well.”

Team members in 2009, from left, Anita Santilli, Devon Cottle, Abby (Mathieu) Swalga, Riley (Bonar) Carpenter, Kaylee Nugent, Sophia Kayafas, Amanda Welsh and Alyssa McKitrick. 

A musician and a Marshall County Schools teacher, Eli Lambie, who was team co-captain his senior year 2012, leans on lessons he’s learned. “I use what I learned from my participation with the speech team every single day as a teacher and a performer. I’m constantly in social and performance situations, and the speech team has given me the interactive tools and confidence that I needed to turn my passions into my career. As an elementary music teacher, I find myself constantly performing for my kids.”

“The work ethic and drive it gave me was unparalleled. Undergrad felt like a breeze after high school,” said Sarabeth (Yoder) Hartle, ’06. “[I] continued to apply this work ethic in law school and MBA courses. I owe such a debt to Mr. Cornforth and Miss Schoolcraft. They were some of the first teachers to really give me these opportunities and chances to prove myself when I didn’t have confidence yet as a high school kid.”

“I talk about the speech team a lot to my colleagues, my clients and my friends,” Tiffany Lee Popson said. “I believe that of all the things I’ve done in my life, being on Wheeling Park’s speech team has had one of the greatest impacts on my future overall. I learned what it takes to be truly prepared and how that preparedness can pay off in the end. I learned what respect means and got to see first hand what it takes to earn that respect and maintain it through years of dedication.”

Popson, who works in the direct sales business in New York City, was the state champ in the sales category in 2005.

“I do a sales pitch multiple times a day. I didn’t think that writing that speech on Weight Watchers my senior year would have any impact on my career, but it certainly did. Now I wear suits every day and give my sales pitch to as many people as I can. Even then, the suits were always one of my favorite things about the team. I was apparently working on my preparedness for my job years ago and had no idea.

“I feel as though what we learned and put into practice is a dying art,” she said, noting that she often hears that young people lack the ability to speak professionally. Her company rewards employees who have reached certain goals with the chance to give a speech to co-workers and family members. “It still thrills me to do that. I was so honored and appreciative when my time came, but so many others were absolutely terrified to get in front of a group, large or small, and speak their own words,” Popson added.

“I regularly give presentations and speak in front of groups of people,” said Chris Seidler, ’04, who works in business development and is based in Washington, D.C. “Feeling comfortable in my own skin, rolling with the inevitable places I’ll be veered off-script, and reading a room in the midst of presenting are all vital for my career success, and the WPHS speech team was probably my first introduction to those concepts.”

Team members in 2004, the year of the 25th championship, from left: Cayla (Jorden) Black, Sarabeth (Yoder) Hartle (back), Katy (Gallaher) Wakim, Jennifer Mathieu, Chris Seidler and Nate Strasser. (Photo provided by Tiffany Lee Popson)

Susan Fox-Nolte learned how to write a persuasive paper, while on the debate team in the mid-1980s. “It helps you to organize your thoughts and [gives] you a lot of confidence to stand in front of large crowds and speak. I still hear Miss Schoolcraft in my mind when I’m formulating my speeches I have to give to a large crowd.”

Allison O’Konski, who was team co-captain her senior year, believes that “being part of the WPHS Speech and Debate Team shaped the trajectory of my life. … I’ve given significant credit to the program for my skills and success as a communications major in college and in every marketing job since graduating. Just recently, I spoke to a civic club and pointed to my speech background when they complimented my presentation. I will always be grateful and proud of my time on the team,” she said. O’Konski was marketing and community relations specialist for the City of Wheeling, and she is now the community relations director at the Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center.

 Stacey Sacco of Martins Ferry, class of ’99, learned about losing.

“I learned a lot about perseverance and hard work. As a kid who usually made the team, got As and was seen as successful, speech team handed me some of my first losses. While that may not sound like a positive memory, it taught me a lot about how to handle defeat and how to change it into a learning experience instead of lingering on the loss itself. I made wonderful friends, some of whom I am still in touch with. And the skill of being able to express myself in a way that is both interesting and easily understood is invaluable in any career, but especially in my position as production editor of InWheeling Magazine.”

Vance Mazure, a senior who brought home three trophies from the state tournament last month, believes “the work I’ve done with the team has helped me develop skills that will benefit me for the rest of my life. I have honed my skills as a writer. I have learned to keep up with and analyze the implications of current events. Of course, I have learned how to communicate orally in an enthusiastic, entertaining and persuasive manner. Most importantly, though, I have learned to work with people. This team’s foundation is rooted in teamwork, leadership and responsibility. I know what it means to be a mentor, a leader, a teammate, a friend and so much more.”

“There are platitudes to which I’m sure everyone identifies — independence, confidence, preparation. For me, more than anything, I learned to be adaptive,” said playwright Jeremy Richter. “When you’re competing week to week, thrown into new locations with new competitors in front of new adjudicators … sometimes with new/different rules to follow, you learn to become flexible and calm. It also helped me further understand the value and loyalty of ‘team.’ Too often we focus on the success and development of ourselves and lose sight of the bigger picture. In my three years of competition, we weren’t always consistent, heavy hitters across the board. Some tournaments the debaters carried us to victory, others the underclassmen [individual event] competitors did. Of course, we all wanted to bring home individual hardware, but if the team didn’t win, nothing else mattered.”

Miss Schoolcraft said she often hears from former students that being on the speech team has affected their lives and careers. “Often, it’s the parents who stop me and voice the same,” she said. “I always hoped each [student] would find that he/she could accomplish more than he/she ever thought. But, on the other hand, we always taught, ‘If you’ve done the best you can do, that’s all that can be asked of you.’”


“One of my favorite memories has to be competing in the National Competition in Albany, N.Y.,” said Riley Carpenter. “It was AMAZING to see how many students from around the country were involved in something that I was involved in too. A fairly cool idea to a 17-year-old! I also have to add that meeting my two best friends (Abby Mathieu Swalga and Anita Santilli) is a pretty incredible memory. We all made the speech team the spring/summer after our freshmen year and have been absolutely inseparable ever since.”

Abby Swalga echos that sentiment: “My favorite overall memory of being in the speech and theater department would be the many afternoons spent in the theater with my two best friends (Riley Carpenter and Anita Santilli).”

Team members and best friends, from left, Anita Santilli, Abby (Mathieu) Swalga and Riley (Bonar) Carpenter.

“My favorite memories are the funny ones,” said Allison O’Konksi. “Like how [Miss Schoolcraft] dubbed me ‘Dirty Al’ because I didn’t wash my hair often, and the time she called me into her office in a stern voice only to offer me peach gummy candies because she knew I’d eat anything.

“I still tell people about the time I memorized two original speeches (nearly 20 minutes of content) overnight in six hours and earned my memorization sign-off from Fran Schoolcraft the next morning. I’m not sure if I ever confessed that to her,” O’Konski said. “Also, though not necessarily a favorite memory, the taste of honey lemon cough drops always takes me back to my ‘speechie’ days.”

Sarabeth Hartle’s “speechie” experiences came full circle. As a freshman, she was impressed with an older student’s dramatic interpretation presentation during theater club, and then a couple years later, it was she, along with teammate Melissa Ceo, who was performing for theater club. “Making people laugh and react was such a rewarding feeling.” She’s also proud of the fact that when she gave her declamation speech in front of a theater class and Miss Schoolcraft that she heard no “negative feedback immediately prior to winning at states my sophomore year.”

One of Park senior Maria Goudy’s favorite memories is also about the friends she’s met while being on the team. “They are more like a family to me, and I will forever be grateful for everything they have done for me. I know that they will be my friends for the rest of my life, and there is absolutely no one else that I would rather have gone through this experience with.”

Vance Mazure, one of the tri-captains this year, said that his favorite memory pertaining to Mr. Cornforth “is probably either the first time we shook hands and he told me I made the team my sophomore year or hugging him after winning number 40 this year.”

Speech and debate team captains 2019, from left, Vance Mazure, Lillian Bischof and Maria Goudy.

Tiffany Popson remembers Miss Schoolcraft’s last tournament, the team’s 25th win in 2004, as bittersweet for everyone.

“Every year, we would all gather in one hotel room the night before the tournament. It was a pep talk of sorts, but also a goodbye. This evening certainly had a particular tone as not only the seniors were leaving us, but Fran was as well. It was a celebratory passing of the torch, but that torch was heavy. We still needed to win year 25 but we also were being handed a legacy, and no one wants to be the team that screws it up. It has been amazing to witness these kids carry that legacy from afar. They have taken it far beyond any expectation that I could have imagined.”

Mr. Cornforth has many happy memories, he said. “Some memories are award assemblies where, over the years, we have had a myriad of state finalists and some national finalists. Some memories are watching particular students in practice make giant hurdles in their progress.”

Is he excited for the reunion? “Forty years! That 1980 class are in their late 50s!
Today’s team are 16- to 18-year olds. They could almost be grandchildren of the first class.

“That is a lot of years and a lot of champions.”

• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.