By Ross Markman
It's been 14 years for Havre High School's speech and debate team. Fourteen years of accumulating points. Fourteen years of National Forensic League competitions. Nearly a decade and a half of waiting to call the plaque its own.
The wait is over.
With the success of this season, Havre High's squad has the highest amount of NFL competition points in the state. The kids and coaches will be honored on Feb. 9 at the NFL Tournament in Great Falls.
"Havre is not a big team, so it takes a little longer to accumulate points," said Axel Schmaing, who resigned from coaching the team last year. "I'm glad that the chapter is going to be recognized again. It's nice for the school and the community."
Due to its small size roughly 700 students, 30 on the team it could be some time before Havre High captures the award again, Schmaing added. Once a school wins, its point total goes back to zero.
By contrast, a larger school like Bozeman High School with nearly 1,800 students and more than 90 participating in speech and debate can accrue enough points every five or six years.
Accolades, however, aren't the only factor that attracts these kids to speech and debate.
Some participate to boost self-confidence, others to improve their public speaking skills or earn a varsity letter. And all are in it to have fun.
Yes, public speaking and arguing government policy can be enjoyable.
"Yeah, it is fun," said Peter Spangelo, a junior in his third year participating in team debate. "I wanted a sporting event that was more mental than physical, and this was a very good way to show I was more intelligent than someone else."
Spangelo and his teammate, Matt Welch, are candidates to receive the Double Ruby, the highest honor the NFL awards in Montana. The guys placed fourth at the state tournament held last weekend in Havre, while Havre took third out of 23 teams in Class A.
Spangelo said his experience with policy debating has prepared him for future endeavors.
"It will help me in whatever I do," he said. "You become more confident the more you do it."
Kevin Shellenberger, an assistant team coach, agreed and said speech and debate gives students a chance to interact with kids they might otherwise have never met.
"As a classroom teacher, I see how it goes into their everyday lives. And it's certainly a confidence booster. You witness that in our freshman debaters," Shellenberger said.
Take Lucas Hamilton, for instance. The 15-year-old Havre High ninth-grader is in his first year on the school's speech and debate team. Hamilton and debating teammate Mike Inabnit are the squad's only freshman debaters. He said he joined the team to earn a varsity letter.
"And you get to miss school a lot," he said, laughing.
Hamilton said he's uncertain what to expect at the upcoming NFL tournament.
"I don't exactly know how hard it's going to be, but I'm not that nervous," he said.
Head coach Peggy Fink assured Hamilton that the competition will be stiff.
"This is a great opportunity for them. At NFL, they're trying to whittle it down for nationals," Fink said.
Of the 30 students on Havre's team, Fink said, only some will travel to Great Falls. Many are still recovering from the state meet, she said.
Michelle Holden, who placed sixth at the state tournament in serious oral interpretation of literature, said she's happy with the team's success this year. Holden, 17, graduated early from Havre High last week and will attend Montana State University-Northern.
"We got third place in state; that's better than last year," said Holden, who participated all four years of high school. "I'm really excited about that. It's showing improvement in our team."
Hoping to ultimately attend the University of New Orleans for drama, Holden said being a member of the speech and debate team has provided her with a way to harness her skills.
"First of all, it helps you get in front of people and talk in front of people. That's one of the skills I've really developed," she said. "And it's just fun to me. It's sort of like developing a character."
Fink, who's been on the Havre High coaching staff for the last three seasons, said speech and debate is not only a way to create and act out a character, but a way to strengthen one's own.
"This is an experience that's going to help them the rest of their lives," she said. "It gives (students) a leg up."