‘Fingers crossed, words on fire’: Moorhead speech team off to state tournament after winning last 7 years

Students shout
Karena Christenson (front) shouts warm up exercises with (back row, left to right) Emma Andersen, Max Hendrickson, Ian Artley and Rachel Leiseth before the Moorhead Speech Team Showcase on March 23 at Horizon Performing Arts Center in Moorhead.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

There’s a force constantly building inside Moorhead High School, tucked into a sunny, corner second-floor classroom.

Outside you’ll find students talking to walls, contorting their arms and faces. Inside Room F-211, you’ll find the home of the speech and debate team.

It’s where team members — 68 of them — have burnished their skills to become Class AA state champions for the past seven years (excluding a COVID year when the award wasn’t presented).

On April 5, the team won the 8AA Sections tournament for the 29th consecutive year. Twenty-six Moorhead High Spuds qualified that day for the state tournament in Shakopee this weekend.

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A person performs in a classroom
Speech team captain CeCe Bedore performs her piece at practice in coach Rebecca Meyer-Larson's classroom at Moorhead High School on April 4.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

“Every year there’s been a state championship, we’ve been the state champion,” said head coach Rebecca Meyer-Larson. She’s coached the team for 35 years.

“It’s still exciting every single time,” she said. “It’s still surprising every single time, given the amount of talent in this state — and they’re gonna make us work for it this year for sure. So we’ll see.”

‘Beautiful stories and messages’

Ask team captain Karena Christenson to define the last four years, and she’ll say “competitive talking.”

But it’s more than that, she said.

Speech is “a bunch of kids coming together who get to share their voices who otherwise might not be heard. And you get to hear a bunch of beautiful stories and messages,” Christenson said.

“You can either be sharing your story or something to relate to, or somebody else’s or bringing awareness to a subject a lot of people might not know about.”

Those stories include all sorts of topics, from serious to silly and real life to fiction. Competitors mostly perform or speak alone, but some categories require a pair or even a table of competitors.

A person smiles at a desk
Head coach Rebecca Meyer-Larson watches a student practice in her classroom on April 4 at Moorhead High School.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

“We’re like this little secret society of cool people that get to listen to the power of words every single day and most people don’t have a clue that it’s happening in Moorhead,” Meyer-Larson said, adding it isn’t limited to the northwest Minnesota city.

“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids have their eyes on that state tournament with their fingers crossed and their words on fire,” she said.

From January through April, Moorhead Speech Team students meet with any of its nine coaches on weekdays. That’s five days a week for three or four hours.

“Even when you’re not [in] dedicated coaching time, you’re still here and you’re working on things or you’re running ideas with someone else,” said Andrew Tichy, who has been coaching the team for 10 years.

A man expresses
Coach Andrew Tichy gives feedback to a student during practice ahead of the sections tournament, on April 4 at Moorhead High School.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

On tournament weekends, competitors load onto a bus on Friday night, spend it at a hotel and compete Saturday all day.

Schools across the state host tournaments, which are filled with competitors in high heels and dress suits, carrying water bottles and throat lozenges. It’s all high fives and no side eyes.

Amy Doherty, the director of Minnesota State High School League Speech for the past decade-plus, said speech kids are just good kids.

“They’re just like, sweet and happy and they support other schools and you don’t see poor sportsmanship or parents yelling at the judges,” she said.

Moorhead speech dynasty

After the awards ceremony, Moorhead students bus back home, usually four hours from the Twin Cities metro. “Mey-Lar,” as students like to call coach Meyer-Larson, walks down the aisle handing out candy. She talks to every student.

“That’s something else that a lot of other teams don’t have. We jump back on our bus and we go a long drive back to Moorhead,” said Meyer-Larson. “We have a lot of time to dissect and look at our critiques.”

But it’s hard to say exactly why the team has triumphed all these years.

Coach Tichy said that travel piece is certainly unique: “We just spend more time together.”

But he said it boils down to drive and tenacity.

Students stand and speak on stage
Students run a performance ahead of at the Moorhead Speech Team Showcase on March 23 at Horizon Performing Arts Center in Moorhead.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

“Kids who really are passionate about the words that they are performing, the dedication that they have to their craft and to their teammates. I don’t know if that’s something that sets us apart necessarily, but it’s certainly something that I’ve seen,” he said.

That dedication is a pillar of speech steams across the state.

“The advantage that we have is that the best speech state — and I don’t think you can argue that — is Minnesota,” Meyer-Larson said. “And so every weekend, those metro teams, northern Minnesota teams, teams from all over Minnesota teach us how it’s done.” She adds her students also benefit from competing at and attending national competitions.

Team captain Christiansen also credits the closeness of members of her team.

“Iron sharpens iron. And so like, we’re competing against each other, which pushes us to be better … everybody wants everybody to do well. And I think that’s why we do so well. It’s because we do it together,” she said.

Through prose and great speeches, team captain Maya Weiler said she’s become an advocate for “communities that don’t often get a voice.” A senior, she plans to work in the nonprofit sector after graduation.

“As much as it’s sad that it’s ending — speech in itself — but like, the lessons I’ve learned from it aren’t stopping for me whatsoever, because I’m gonna keep using everything that I learned in this activity throughout the rest of my life.”

The High School League’s Doherty knows it. These kids are our future community leaders, she said.

“That experience in high school speech is going to benefit them in the community because it’s hard to figure out a career where public speaking and putting together your thoughts isn’t an important skill,” she said.

Student raises her hand and shouts
Maya Weiler (center) leads the team in warm ups before the Moorhead Speech Team Showcase on March 23 at Horizon Performing Arts Center in Moorhead.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

In Meyer-Larsen’s decades of coaching, she’s watched her students go on to become lawyers, ministers, parents and change-makers.

“I look out at those kids and they are bound and determined — they’re gonna fix it, they’re gonna fix it, and I believe them. And I’ve watched them for all these years I’ve been coaching I watched them graduate and fix it and change the world,” Meyer-Larson said.

There’s no way to know if the team will walk away with an eighth championship trophy this year, or precisely how these seniors will go on to fix the world.

For now, the Spuds are holding onto their tried-and-true constants.

The bus ride to Shakopee won’t be complete without blasting “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen and “Roar” by Katy Perry. Meyer-Larson will anoint each competitor with a roll-on essential oil smudge.

She’ll tell them, one by one: “Love your words, love your team.”

Students wrap arms around each other and shout
Students embrace each other during warm up exercises before the Moorhead Speech Team Showcase on March 23 at Horizon Performing Arts Center in Moorhead.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

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