Danielle Kaminiski and James Miller repeated the same four words as did the captains of last year’s title team, and the exact terms, too, preached by those who competed two years ago.
“Put in the work.”
It’s the mantra of the Wheeling Park Speech and Debate team, and it’s been consistently set forth by head coach Bill Cornforth since he and Fran Schoolcraft started building this dynasty in the early 1980s.
After all, President Jimmy Carter was living in the White House the last time Wheeling Park’s academics were defeated in the state tournament.
“When you join the team, whether you are sophomore, junior, or as a senior, you know about the streak already, so you know what you are signing up for,” senior captain Jason Miller admitted. “And as we go through our tournaments each month, you are very aware that the state tournament is getting closer and closer. That’s when it feels like it’s looming.
“And then when you get to March, you know that it’s only a few weeks away, and that’s when we start receiving a lot of texts and messages from alumni, and that’s when we start talking about it a lot,” he continued. “When it finally arrives, the only thing you can think of is that you hope you put in enough work. It worked out that we did put in enough work.”
“We always say to turn the pressure into confidence and know that we have worked hard all year long and know that we deserve what we do, and we love what we do,” said Kaminiski, one of four senior captains. “We make it fun. We relax, and we know the most important thing is to do the best we can do because that’s all we can do.”
Two weekends ago the speech and debate team traveled to Parkersburg High for the Student Congress Debate event, and then it was to the WVU-Parkersburg campus for the last competition of the year. Points collected during both events are compiled when calculating championship points. Five teams competed in Student Congress and 10 high schools were involved with the overall state competition last weekend.
Once all of the Wheeling Park competitors completed their performances in 13 different categories, the waiting game began in a lobby crowded with team members, families, and friends.
“It’s a long process because some of us were finished for a couple of hours before we heard whether or not we had won, and that’s probably the hardest part because you know that you’ve done everything you can do,” Miller said. “Then it’s a waiting game until you know if the hard work paid off or not.”
Organizers finally revealed that Wheeling Park indeed did repeat as state champions for a 37th consecutive year. The Patriots collected 1,327 points and Huntington High finished in second place for the third year in row with 883 points.
Wheeling Park collected 10 first-place finishes and three students were named second-place finishers. Miller scored Best Overall speaker with a first place in Student Congress Debate and a second place in Lincoln-Douglas Debate. Kaminski was fifth in Student Congress and, along with Sarah Ihlenfeld, finished second in the Public Forum Debate.
“It is such a humbling experience; it really is, but it wasn’t until we got home when it really hit me,” Kaminski said. “There were so many people there when we got home, and they were cheering for us because we did it. We got No. 37, and the news was there, and our parents were there. I started tearing up when I got off the bus because that’s when it hit me.
“It really meant a lot to see those people there because they are the ones who have to put up with us, our crazy schedules and missing meals, and things like that,” she said. “I’m sure I wasn’t easy to deal with, but to see my mother there really made me feel good.”
Remaining anonymous instead of famous is another goal set forth by the coaching staff.
“We do try to stay humble because no one wants to jinx anything about it,” said assistant coach Joshua Fromhart. “And at these tournaments that we go to, we really do not know until the very end if we’ve won, so it does make for a little stress, especially when the streak is on the line.
“Now, as soon as it was announced, there was a sigh of relief and excitement all at the same time, and that’s when the celebration begins,” he said. “It was very exciting for our team members and for the coaches, too, because each season is almost the entire school year long, and it definitely is very, very satisfying when you know that ultimate goal has been reached.”
The team members – all 43 of them – have been invited to Quaker Steak & Lube for a free dinner any Tuesday evening, and the Wheeling Nailers are planning to honor the Patriots during an upcoming home game. The city of Wheeling, along with the Ohio County Commission, also has plans to honor the state champions, too.
“There was a lot of response to the win on social media over the weekend, and then we were on the announcements at school, and a lot of classmates and most of our teachers congratulated each one of us all day long,” Miller reported. “There were a few students who also met our bus Saturday night, and that was really cool, too.
“We definitely received an awesome amount of response, and that always makes you feel great because sometimes you think no one is paying attention,” he continued. “But they definitely were, more so this year than I can remember the past two years I’ve been on the team and we’ve won.”
“This is not just a Wheeling Park High thing; this is a Wheeling thing,” Fromhart added. “It’s a community victory because it really felt like everyone in the community was rooting for us no matter what kind of affiliation they had with this school and that school.
“We all get the messages from so many people from every corner of the Wheeling area, and it really feels great to know that people are very interested and that they want this streak to continue as long as it possibly can,” he continued. “That’s why we feel we have a great support system around us, and it’s amazing. I don’t know if there is a secret to the team’s success, but these three words mean something to our team members – dedication, time, and the students. I truly believe that the members of the speech and debate team are some of the best of the best.”
During the current school year, the Wheeling Park Speech and Debate team competed in nine tournaments in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and Fromhart reported some pretty special results from the season.
“I think one of the things that is most special about this year’s team is even though they competed against teams from very large schools in the Pittsburgh area, they were able to accomplish something that hasn’t been achieved in years.
“They swept every tournament this year. All first-place finishes,” the assistant coach said with a smile. “I don’t think that has happened in about four or five years, and that says a lot about these young people. That is incredibly special and incredibly impressive for them to put in the time and the effort to be able to do that.”
Is it too early to even mention No. 38?
“I have full confidence that the younger folks on the team are going to be able to continue this streak, and that’s because they all performed very, very well,” Miller said. “We have 43 members on the team and we took 31 to the state tournament, and only 12 of us were seniors and the rest were underclassmen.
“Of our debaters only three of the seven were seniors so the team should be just fine as long as they put the work in and don’t get too confident,” he continued. “That’s what we have been told for the past three years so I’m pretty positive that’s not going to change.”
(Photos provided by WPHS team members and coaches)