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Westfield High is Region Speech Champ

Not only did Westfield High win the VHSL (Virginia High School League) Northern Region Speech Championship, it knocked off defending champ Madison High — which had won for the last 11 years.

"We were in preschool, the first time Madison won regionals," said Bulldog forensics team member Alex Valencia, 16. "As a team, it was great — it was our biggest win of the year," said teammate Nina Walter, also 16.

Westfield's forensics team also holds the distinction of being the school's first team ever to win a district title — which it did last year. And its 2003 performance made it Westfield's first team to repeat as Concorde District champions.

Winning regionals, March 6 — paving the way for AAA Division state competition this coming Saturday — was the icing on the cake. "It's the trophy I most wanted to get," said speech and debate coach Mike Greiner. "I'm extremely pleased that [the team] exceeded high expectations."

THE REGIONALS WERE at West Potomac High, and 19 Westfield students vied against students from Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Fauquier counties — and roundly trounced them. Westfield beat Madison, 42 points to 20. Said Greiner: "We had more points than the second- and third-place teams combined."

On Monday, some of the team members discussed what forensics is and why they do it. And, while it's not athletics, said junior Scott Seymour, 17, it's a VHSL sport, all the same. "We compete in three leagues — the VHSL, the Washington/Arlington Catholic Forensics League and the Northern Virginia Forensics League," said Seymour, in his third year on the team.

Senior Richael Faithful, 17, a three-year team member, said, "It's one of the few intellectual endeavors you can pursue in high school that's long-term." Added Walter: "It's intriguing to have a sports team that caters to academics. And sports teams are just one season — we compete all year."

Westfield's forensics team has six to 10 active members — mostly girls, and they often meet three times a week, after school, for three hours at a time. They're all involved in more than one type of speech competition — and two will be the school's orchestra concert, the night before the state championship.

"We get together to practice speaking competitively — learning research techniques, speaking styles, speaking in front of people and speech presentation," said Seymour. "After you do it for awhile, your speaking skills get better and you lose your fear of speaking in front of other people," said Valencia, in his first year on the team.

They also praised Greiner. "He's our coach, mentor, teacher — and the person I most respect, for his values and his commitment to the team," said junior Arnab Mukherjee, 16. "He's inspiring with his words, and he speaks the truth and is plainly a good coach."

WALTER ALSO LIKES the diversity forensics offers. "You can be in improv[isational] events, which are creative like acting," she said. "Or you can be in formal events, like debates." The team participates in more than 30 competitions, each year and, said Seymour, "This has been our best year, so far, because we have a more mature, [experienced] team."

"We're all serious about doing this stuff," added Valencia. "And our teacher is very devoted." Students choose the type of speaking that interests them. For example, Seymour does extemporaneous speaking and policy debate and is also in student congress — which is parliamentary debate.

"We speak on nine topics, such as, legislation and going to war with Iraq," he explained. "It's a lot like a model U.N. Usually, you're going against 20 other students from other high schools in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, and six to 20 people are on each team."

Members of Westfield's forensics team participate in two main areas — speech team and debate team — each with their own divisions.

Debate-team members compete in the categories of: 1. Student congress, like Seymour; 2. Lincoln-Douglas, based on the late 1850s' Illinois senatorial election debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas ("It's a one-on-one, philosophical debate on current issues, debated in their style," said Walter); and 3. Policy debate, which is done two-on-two, with students debating, for example, mental-health care in the U.S.

Speech-team members compete in the categories of: 1. Oratorical speech — composed of extemporaneous speaking and original oratory, and 2. Interpretive speech — composed of different types of competitive events. Extemporaneous speaking is where students present their ideas on a topic in a formal manner.

"It's the hardest one," said Seymour. "You draw three topics, pick one and get 30 minutes to prepare a seven-minute speech — and make it sound like you've worked on it for 30 days." Sample topics could include, "Is the economy in a recession?" or "What should be done about the North Korean crisis?" Added Valencia: "You have to create a well-prepared speech and deliver it well."

EXPLAINING ORIGINAL ORATORY, Faithful said it's a 10-minute, persuasive or informative speech, but students aren't required to speak on a political topic, as in extemporaneous speaking. An example is "The feminist movement," said Faithful. "This year, I had to persuade the audience that it's a good movement. But I've also addressed the 'Moment of silence' in this area." She said it's a memorized presentation and is "what people think speech is."

On the other hand, interpretive speech includes dramatic, humorous, two-person, interpretive, impromptu and storytelling modes of speaking. "These events are what people don't think about as speech," said Walter. "For example, in impromptu, you get a person — 'Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson — pick one'; everyday object — like 'toaster' or 'doorknob'; or a quote, and you have seven minutes total to prepare a speech."

She said these type of speeches are more pop culture. Added Valencia: "They're usually on things you know about and can talk about on your own." However, said Walter, "You don't start off by naming who [or what] you're talking about; you connect it in the speech." Also fun to do, she said, is to take 10 minutes of a play and perform all the parts. Said Walter: "This is where people get very creative."

During the regionals, Mukherjee and Valencia both did domestic extemporaneous speeches. Mukherjee talked about Senate majority leader Bill Frist and Iraq, and Valencia spoke on what the Supreme Court should do about the ban on cross burning, as well as how the firing of former Treasury Secy. Paul O'Neill would affect the economy.

Seymour focused on international extemporaneous speaking, discussing North Korea, the European union and oil in the Middle East. Faithful presented her speech on feminism, and Walter chose the impromptu arena. The students competed in three rounds. In round one, Walter spoke on an obscure quote; in round two, the Academy Awards; and in round three, Barbie dolls. Obviously, besides possessing the requisite speaking skills, Westfield's forensic team also demonstrated its knowledge of a vast array of topics.

SEYMOUR WAS CONFIDENT the Bulldogs would win regionals. "We had the best people ever and sent our largest contingent," he said. "It felt great to beat Madison — it was exciting," added Mukherjee."

Faithful said the toughest part was keeping up their endurance through the competition. What she liked best was "learning about different topics and viewpoints from other people's speeches."

Now seven Westfield students — including Mukherjee, Seymour and Walter — will compete in the state championship against 30 or 40 other high schools, all day Saturday, March 22, at Albemarle High in Charlottesville. Hopes are high and, said Walter, "Having seven people going in gives us a good chance."

"It was great to hear a big roar from the team [after it won regionals]," added Greiner. "We have an outside chance to win [at states], but I'd hope we [finish] in the top four."