MARSHALL - The halls, rooms, and stairwells of Marshall High School on Saturday were crammed with kids mostly dressed in somber, black attire, some walking purposefully with fixed stares, some talking to walls, and some walking out of rooms with an air of palpable relief.
Such is a day in the life of competitors at the 12th annual Schwan's Speech Spectacular, which has become one of the more prestigious events in speech competitions in the country.
"The road to the nationals leads through Marshall," said Terry Rubin, a speech coach from Kent-Denver School in Colorado. "The competition is just so strong, and I want my students to see the best. Even if my students don't get to the final rounds I want them to see the level we must rise to."
Rubin said the Marshall event with about 30 teams compares favorably with the Glenbrooks event in Chicago with 150 teams.
"This one is just as tough," Rubin said.
This is the second year the Schwan's Speech Spectacular has been classified as a "bid event," meaning winners in any of five categories: drama, duo, original oratory, and humorous, have a shot at the National Individual Events Tournament of Champions (NIETOC) finals to be held in San Francisco in May.
According to Rick Purrington, head coach of the Marshall speech team, the board of NIETOC awards bid status based on the caliber of the competition, and looks at things like the number of entries, the number of schools competing, what schools compete, and the number of rounds at the event.
"They don't want to be handing out bids for free," Purrington said. "They want to make sure students earn trips to San Francisco in very competitive tournaments."
Competitors who win in two bid events qualify for the nationals, but a win in your home school may not qualify as a bid win because of the home field advantage, according to Matt Heimes, vice-president of NIETOC and coach of the Lincoln Southwest High School in Nebraska.
"I bring my kids here because the competition is so strong," Heimes said. "We bring them here hoping to pick up some bids in the main events."
Heimes said Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter is offering $16,000 scholarships to each winner of nine events at nationals.
What you hear over and over from guests competitors is how well-organized the event is.
"I'm impressed with the efficiency of the tournament, it's really well run," said Bryan Hagg, a coach from Sioux Falls, S.D. "Marshall does a really good job of hosting this event."
Sarah Newell, a student from Omaha, Neb., agrees.
"It's run so well and everything is organized," Newell said. "We get to meet people we couldn't at other events. At a lot of local competitions you only see people you know and have the same scripts. Here we can see the way things are done differently."
Newell's teammate Lauren Hunter, in Marshall for the first time, explained how some things are done differently.
"Visual aids are different down here," Hunter said. "They have more posters than we do."
Their teammate, Joe Gruber, pointed out something else different about an event hosted at a relatively smaller school.
"I did a couple of rounds in the weight room," Gruber said. "At a small school like this you get to do rounds in interesting places like a stairway."
According to Heimes, students participating in speech events are often preparing themselves for careers in law, politics, theater, or just for the rigors college life.
"It prepares them for collegiate work and the work ethic," Heimes said. "These kids are so willing to go above and beyond what's required in the classroom to accomplish their goals."