When the streak began, the personal computer had yet to be introduced to the world. The Internet did not exist either, and neither did DNA fingerprinting or smartphones or even tilt-and-roll luggage.
This streak has outlived NASA’s space shuttle program, and it has witnessed the Sony Walkman evolve past the cassette tape and compact disc and into the digital MP3 player.
And when this string of 36 consecutive state championships began, Fran Schoolcraft was the head coach and Bill Cornforth was her assistant, and the members of this year’s ultra-successful squad were not even alive yet. They weren’t even a twinkle in an eye, and that’s because this record-setting run has gone generational. It is a streak that began with 1979, and the champions on that first title team are now in their 50s.
Last weekend, 28 members of Wheeling Park’s speech and debate team traveled to Huntington for the state finals. Before the event, two senior captains would deny feeling the pressure the streak most definitely puts on these teenagers. Instead, they would offer generic replies like, “All we can do is give it our best and hope it works out our way.”
But afterward, once a great weight had been lifted from their souls by hoisting the hardware, seniors Lisa Fanning and Aimee Schultz admitted the relief. Both Fanning and Schultz won state titles, and several of their teammates returned to the Friendly City decorated, as well, including the following:
Jordan Crow: 3rd place Humorous/Dramatic Interpretation;
Aimee Schultz: 1st place Salesmanship, 3rd place Impromptu Speaking, 3rd place Duo Interpretation;
Willie McCleery: 1st place Prose Interpretation, 2nd place Impromptu Speaking, 4th Humorous/ Dramatic Interpretation;
Brooke Bleifus-Hennen: 5th place Poetry Interpretation, 6th place Prose Interpretation;
Rosaline Clark: 1st place Poetry Interpretation, 4th place Extemporaneous Speaking;
Megan Chacalos: 1st place Humorous/ Dramatic Interpretation;
Lisa Fanning: 1st place Student Congress, 1st place Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Top Speaker in Lincoln Douglas Debate;
Eric Geisel : 4th place Improvisational Duo;
Kathleen Buch: 3rd place Student Congress, Outstanding Presiding Officer, Semi-Finalist Public Forum Debate;
Derek Zelkowski: Semi-Finalist Public Forum Debate;
Jalen McCrary: 2nd place Improvisational Duo, 3rd place Prose Interpretation, Semi-Finalist Poetry Interpretation;
Philip Schwarz: 1st place Original Oratory, 2nd place Salesmanship;
Makayla Carney: 4th place Improvisational Duo;
Zach Fales: 2nd place Improvisational Duo;
Adam Toriseva: 2nd place Public Forum Debate;
Danielle Kaminski: Top Speaker in Public Forum Debate, 2nd place Public Forum Debate, 6th place Student Congress;
Hannah Meredith: 3rd place Duo Interpretation, 5th place Humorous/ Dramatic Interpretation;
James Miller: 2nd place Student Congress, Semi-Finalist Lincoln-Douglas Debate;
Joana Tsuhlares: 4th place Prose Interpretation;
Samantha Force: 4th place Broadcasting;
Kelly McCardle: 1st place Duo Interpretation, 3rd place Declamation;
And two other students – Betsy Brossman and Miriam Demasi — also contributed to the victory.
Cornforth is now the head coach, and Josh Fromhart serves as the coach for the debate team. Lori Mathieu and Kayla Nelson are assistant coaches.
Novotney: Tell me how it feels to capture a 36th straight championship and to see the reaction for the people here in the city of Wheeling.
Cornforth: It’s a wonderful feeling, and there are a lot of people around who like to celebrate this for very good reasons. There are a lot of folks in town who were speech team members when they were in school. We have about four teachers at Wheeling Park who were on the team when they were students there, and there are so many people in the area still who were a part of it too.
I think people enjoy being a part of this either directly or indirectly, and that makes it very special.
Novotney: And it also adds to the pressure each year, doesn’t it?
Fanning: We had a saying at school: “anonymity over infamous.” We would rather be anonymous than being known for losing the state championship. So we might not be remembered at the 36th team to win the state championship, but we definitely will not be remembered as the team that lost it.
Novotney: Is that the way it worked for you, Aimee:
Schultz: It absolutely is. I think every team is so motivated to win not just because we want to win, but also because we don’t want to lose.
Novotney: Aimee, tell me about the weight that was released when it was announced to the Wheeling Park team did it again.
Schultz: It was a collective sigh of relief from the entire team. It was completely tangible; as soon they announced who won second place, we all knew. Everyone was just so excited.
Novotney: What was the reaction from the people in attendance.
Fanning: We had our coaches, of course, we had judges who came down with us, and there were also some Marshall students who were there. Plus, the assistant superintendent of Ohio County Schools, Mr. Bernie Dolan, who was there, too, to support us. It does mean more when there are a lot of people there supporting us rather than just doing it alone.
At the point when they announce second place, most of the people in the room are disappointed, but not the people who were there to support us. All I can remember is this feeling of a huge brick being lifted off of my shoulders. It was an amazing feeling that I can’t even describe. It’s something you might feel once or twice in your lifetime, and I’m really appreciative that I got that.
Novotney: When does the speech and debate season begin and end?
Fanning: It starts the moment it ends. On the speech side, they are cutting pieces deciding what events they want to do as soon as soon as the state tournament is over. And then once the school year begins, our first tournament is in late September or early November. That kicks off the competitive part of the season.
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In debate, we could get a new topic each month or every couple of months, so we can’t really prepare during the summer months for the topics, but we still have to be aware of what’s going on in the world as far as current events and things like that are concerned. And there is always a lot of research.
Novotney: Who selects the topics?
Cornforth: We are members of the National Speech and Debate Association. It’s a national organization of hundreds of schools, and they select the topics so everyone across the country is debating the same topics at the same time.
Novotney: Following the state tournament, what’s next? Is there a national competition?
Cornforth: We do go to a national tournament. There is a national Catholic Forensics League tournament which we participate in, and we’ve had students who have been very successful in that. That sort of validates us on the national level. This year that tournament will be held in Orlando, Fla., and that is over the Memorial Day weekend.
Novotney: Please offer me the history of the instructors for Wheeling Park High’s speech and debate teams.
Cornforth: I started at Wheeling Park in 1979, so I was part of the first one, but Fran Schoolcraft was in charge of the teams when this streak began. Fran really should get all of the credit for starting all of this and continuing it for many, many years. No one should discuss this success without giving Fran most of the credit for this success.
For 25 years, Fran was the head coach, and I was her assistant. I had the job that Josh Fromhart has now. I was the debate coach as he is now. And then Fran retired after the 2004 school year, and I moved up to be the head coach.
Novotney: Do the coaches also feel pressure when it is time to compete for another state title?
Cornforth: I can say the first year we won the state championship with me as the head coach was very memorable, but the only reason I felt pressure was that everyone kept asking me if it was a lot of pressure. I had been a part of the program for 25 years already and worked hard with Fran, so I knew how to go about it, and there was no way I was going to mess that up.
It’s the same thing with the students. They don’t want to mess it up, either. We just decide to do everything that it takes to continue it. So, in a sense, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy when you live out the expectations. It’s a very psychological thing, and it takes a tremendous amount of work to accomplish.
I was asking Aimee earlier whether or not a new student really understands this when they try out.
Schultz: And I said, going back to the time when I first started at Wheeling Park, I heard about the speech and debate teams, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I think when the new students try out, the speech and debate teams seem so prestigious, and to just get on the team is such an honor.
That’s what makes us want to do well. That’s what makes us want to impress everybody when we are auditioning. It’s such a special experience to be a part of this amazing program. I think that’s what causes people to want to be a part of it in the first place.
Novotney: Lisa, do you plan to continue your career in debate no matter what college you choose to attend next year?
Fanning: I would absolutely love to. I can’t imagine a world in which I am not debating, whether that’s through student government or a specific debate team, I do not know right now, but debate will definitely be a part of my future in one way or another.
Novotney: Aimee, most people own a fear of public speaking, but you obviously do not suffer from that fear. How do you explain that?
Schultz: I think what allows me to be comfortable when speaking publicly is the hard work that the coaches put in with us. That hard work allows us to build that confidence over our careers, and that confidence allows us to be better communicators. That’s what this is all about – communicating.
Novotney: Josh, how do you and Bill instill that confidence in your team members?
Fromhart: We have a freshman introduction class in our program. We don’t allow freshman on the debate team, so the introduction class is their first step into the program, and our assistant coaches – Kayla Nelson and Lori Mathieu – work with a lot at that time.
If they decide to try out for the team in their sophomore year, then the introduction class has them better prepared because that’s when the confidence-building really begins for the students.
Novotney: Aimee, if the choice were completely yours, what topic would you choose for a speech?
Schultz: If I could choose to talk about any topic I wanted, I think the topic that I would choose would be this speech and debate program at Wheeling Park High School.
I would choose this program because it’s a topic I could talk about forever. I could talk about all of the wonderful things that I have learned. I think everything that I have taken from being a part of this program has impacted who I am as a person, and I have acquired traits that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It’s really shaped me as a person, so I think I would do a speech about finding that thing that you love doing, and how important it is to find it.
Novotney: Bill Cornforth, to hear that from one of your students has to make you feel pretty good about what you are doing as a teacher.
Cornforth: It definitely does, but these two young ladies are very special people. Not only are they two of our captains, but they also have succeeded incredibly in a lot of events. They covered all of the areas they could, and they both won state championships as individualss. Lisa won two state championships and was undefeated all year in Lincoln-Douglas competitions, and Aimee was also a state champion and was a state champion last year. They acquire points as they compete, and Aimee just found out that she is the fourth highest in points in Wheeling Park history. Lisa is one of the highest debaters in Wheeling Park history.
So they both are very accomplished on a versatile level.
It is a great tradition we have at Wheeling Park, and I know everyone involved plans for it to continue.