MARSHALL - Marshall High School head speech coach Rick Purrington had an inkling this year's speech team was extraordinarily talented. After seeing how competitive the MHS students were at the Harvard University tournament this past weekend, Purrington knows that many of them are the real deal.
A total of 15 students from MHS traveled to the 39th Annual Harvard National Forensic Tournament in Cambridge, Mass., on Friday to compete in the largest high school speech competition in the country. Despite competing against the best in the nation, the MHS students held their own.
"This is the best our team has done competitively since we started coming to Harvard six years ago," Purrington said. "I am very proud of how our team competed toe-to-toe with the best speakers in the nation and, in many cases, beat them. But more importantly, our team members left inspired - having learned so much about what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Now, they can't wait to get back in their suits and compete at Eastview this next weekend."
For luck during the tournament this past weekend, the Marshall High School speech team members rubbed the feet of John Harvard’s statue at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Upon his death in 1638, Harvard left his library and half of his estate to the institution, which is the oldest higher education institution in the United States, having been established in 1636.
After four preliminary rounds of competition, a record-high six MHS students advanced to the break-out rounds, including McKenzie Vermeire, who made it to the quarterfinals, finishing in the top 25 out of 275 participants in the category of Humorous.
"I was almost shocked that I made it that far," Vermeire said. "I was hoping, but pleasantly surprised."
In addition to performing the Humorous piece "From the Mouth of Babes," which includes kindergartners who plot to kill their teacher, Vermeire also competed in Duo with Luke Schroeder.
"I thought the competition went really well," Vermeire said. "I was very surprised with my humor and how our Duo did, even though we didn't make octo-finals. There was definitely a step up from the preliminary rounds to the out-rounds. It was stepped up a lot."
Three MHS students advanced to the octo-finalist round, which includes the top 48 competitors. Melissa Stassen reached the octo-final round amidst 420 contestants in Drama, while Nick Evans and Bo Erickson qualified in Original Oratory, where there were 325 competitors.
"I was very happy with how I did," Evans said. "It's kind of nerve-wracking because you're actually in Harvard. The competition was great. It's a once-in-a-speech-career experience. Just being able to compete on the Harvard campus was really cool."
Abby Surprenant also competed in Oratory and broke to the double octo-finalist round, which includes the top 96 speakers, and Schroeder reached the double-octo round in Drama, which had 420 competitors from across the country.
"There's a lot of variety here," Evans said. "There were at least 29 states represented, so it's really cool to see people from around the country."
While the MHS team was able to take in a little bit of the city, Evans said the group was kept pretty busy on campus. While no Marshall competitor advanced to the championship round in the elite competition, Evans said, team members were able to get something valuable out of watching the "best-of-the-best" on Monday. Vermeire agreed.
"You get something out of it, for sure," she said. "I have a whole bunch of ideas, how to change my piece and make it better."
Vermeire said she also enjoyed the historic and scenic aspects of the trip.
"Our hotel has a gorgeous view and the Harvard campus is amazing," she said. "It was snowing the other day and it was just gorgeous. It's been an amazing experience."
Overall, Evans said he was proud of the way the MHS team competed at the Harvard tournament.
"The last time we came out here two years ago, nobody made it to the finals rounds," he said. "So to go from zero to six is excellent. I think it speaks to the quality on our team this year, how we've grown and developed as a team."
Witnessing the level of competition has made Evans and Vermeire want to excel as well.
"You want to get to that place, so you're willing to do whatever it takes," Vermeire said. "The competition was really fun to see."
The speech team continues competitive season Saturday at Eastview High School, followed by tournaments in Fairmont and Eagan.
The state tournament is April 18-19. Nationals are in May.