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Column: East team impressive in reaching new heights

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I recently met the Columbus East High School speech team and was awestruck. This is an extracurricular activity that gets virtually no community recognition, but these young adults deserve high praise.

They are extremely intelligent, charismatic, poised, articulate and gracious.

The speech team has been around forever, but it went through a slump in recent decades. When Matthew Rothrock, an East alum, took the reins of the program in 2007, there was only one student on the team. Under the guidance of Rothrock and fellow coach Anna Carmon, the once-fledgling team now has 23 participants.

This year the team made history, finishing the season with three historic milestones. Just making it to the state finals was a first in the school’s 42-year history. But this team didn’t just get to state, it placed fourth overall; and senior Whitney Michael earned first place in her category. As if those records were not enough, juniors Mariann Fant and Tessa Hirons earned a spot as a duo team at the June 2014 national tournament.

“These students are so much smarter than we are,” said Rothrock, who coordinates the tutoring program at IUPUC and Ivy Tech Community College. “They’re in a league of their own. They are so much fun to be around. We continually learn from each other.”

Carmon, communications studies program coordinator at IUPUC, said the speech program teaches students much more than how to deliver a speech.

“It’s about everything besides the speech,” Carmon said. “They learn how to dress professionally, how to represent themselves and the community, how to think critically, how to analyze, and how to do research and write.”

“For some of them, it’s about learning to accept rejection and disappointment with dignity and grace,” Rothrock said.

Michael, who placed first in the state in the discussion competition, said participating on the speech team will help her in her future career. She plans to study hospitality in college.

“Speech taught me how to control a room without being rude or pushy,” she said. “It taught me how to be polite and well-spoken.”

Team co-captain Chris Hahn delivered a persuasive speech about nuclear power at this year’s competitions. The East senior plans to study engineering at either Stanford or Purdue next year.

“Speech was a great confidence builder for me. I grew up in the speech program,” Hahn said. “I came in as a shy, withdrawn kid, and I am leaving as a strong, articulate young adult.”

Senior Patrick Foley said the rush of adrenaline from giving a speech was what drew him to the team.

“Standing in front of the judges gives you such a thrill,” he said. “I learned a lot about how to present myself and how to make my messages clear and concise, which will be extremely helpful as I study business in college.”

This is the first time in the school history that students will participate in the national tournament.

Fant and Hirons, both 17, will participate in the memorized duo competition at the 2014 National Speech and Debate Association National Tournament in Overland Park, Kan., June 15 to 20. More than 3,000 students from across the country will participate.

To compete in memorized duo, teams of two must memorize and perform a five- to 10-minute piece from a work of published literature. Fant and Hirons will act out the “Adventures of Alice in Wonderland.”

“We’re not nervous; we’re just really excited to get to be a part of the competition,” Hirons said. “Speech has given me so much more confidence.”

“The speech environment is so accepting,” Fant said. “You meet so many new friends. Every type of student participates. It’s such a good mix of personalities because you get students from all different groups.”

I was so impressed by these students. I feel lucky to have met them and am excited to watch as they take over the world.

Paige Harden Langenderfer is a proud lifelong resident of Columbus. A former Republic newspaper reporter, Paige is now a freelance writer and public relations consultant. She can be reached by email at

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