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A year's worth of hard work came to fruition this past weekend, as 16 students from Central High School traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to compete in the National Speech & Debate Tournament.
The team brought home multiple honors, including a National Champion! Bell Royer, who will be a senior in the fall, won the title in Program Oral Interpretation. Her passionate performance, dedicated to the victims of Robb Elementary in Uvalde, and Tess Mata, a 10-year-old girl who was murdered at the hands of gun violence, was the culmination of her performances from tournaments throughout the year, and combined her skills in acting and public speaking.
"I love the freedom of POI and the usage of a prop," she said. "The idea of using your passion and skills in acting together to enhance your perspectives captures my desire to make change doing what I love."
The topic of gun violence is important to Royer, who said winning the championship feels like she shared the story of tragedy for millions of people in the U.S. "I feel proud of myself for sharing pain in a time when pain is so heavily criticized," she said.
Royer was not the only one who saw success in Phoenix. Overall, the team placed in the top 20 out of 2,000 teams competing from throughout the U.S. That puts Central HS in the Top one percent in the nation, and the honor of being named a "School of Speech Excellence," said Coby Evers, Central's Speech and Debate coach.
At Monday's San Angelo ISD school board meeting, where the team was recognized for their success, Evers said, "One win is everybody's win."
"We are all about constructive criticism, always improving in specific ways, and collectively getting better as a unit and team," Evers said. "We always celebrate together."
Evers, in his third year as head coach of the program, is continuing the strong legacy of the successful team, and was himself a student on the team's 2013 state championship.
"This team is special," he said. "They care so much about each other and how they can amplify their own and each other's voices. They encourage me and remind me that our tomorrow is just getting brighter and brighter."
While this tournament is the final high school event for seniors who graduated last month, the lessons learned will stay with them for a lifetime.
"This program gives you an ability to communicate unlike anything I have ever seen," said Annabeth Dusek, who just finished her fourth year on the team. "It has equipped me to go to college and argue different points of view. I learned that we might not always agree, but you can be friends with people who think differently than you."
Dusek reflected on her four years on the team, meeting people and making friends across the state at tournaments. "Everyone brings their own perspective, she said. "We learn to meet people where they are. We mentor people coming up in the program and learn how they need to be taught. We are accepting of everyone. In Speech and Debate, everyone can come to the table. We can have difficult conversations without it becoming a screaming match."
Her mom, Carmen Dusek, gives the speech and debate program credit for much of the success her daughter has seen in her high school years.
"The program is so multi-faceted," she said. "Students develop the confidence to stand up, whether it's speaking in the classroom, competitions all over the state, or the national tournament."
The team of 55-75 kids competing throughout the year does not travel with many adults, Dusek said, so "they have to learn to act like adults," including managing schedules, helping each other, and mentoring younger members of the team. "Really, just extraordinary life skills," she said. "No one is spoon-feeding these kids. I have no question about my daughter's readiness to go to college."
Also speaking in support of the program, Royer's mom, Erica Hidalgo, says the students' growth comes from the topics they research to compete. "The depth of conversation I can have with her is unmatched," she said. "The research that goes into these projects is really unbelievable."
While Royer has not been shy taking center stage, having performed with San Angelo Broadway Academy since she was 8, she said she did not go into this year expecting to win a national championship.
"No one ever expects to do well," Royer said. "We all practice endlessly and always hope to make an impact, but hardware and recognition is just a bonus."
Other National Finalists:
Auburn Jameson got 7th in the nation in Humorous Interpretation (HI)
Brennan Wood got top 23 out of over 1000 entries in Extemp Debate
Double Octofinals in Original Spoken Word: Landree Alls, Nevaeh Hernandez Double Octofinals in Extemp Commentary: Annabeth Dusek
Double Octofinals in Poetry: Thailia Fernandez
Top 60 in Prose: Jack McLaughlin
Top 60 in Storytelling: Jack McLaughlin
Top 60 in Original Spoken Word: Thailia Fernandez