by Mike Knaak
A variety of voices fill John Ronyak’s classroom as small groups of students earnestly practice speeches, poems and dramatic readings.
The 18 students are members of Sartell High School’s speech team preparing for the April 1 sectional tournament at Brainerd. The top three finishers in 13 categories will move on to the April 22 state tournament. The contests combine public speaking and performance skills in a range of categories from storytelling to extemporaneous speaking.
The team is hoping to build on earlier successes this season. Senior Josh Nguyen was the school’s first triple champion at the Sauk Rapids meet. Salma Maray and Sonja Hackenmueller won the Central Lakes Conference championships, Maray in humorous interpretation and Hackenmueller in poetry.
Nguyen won awards in poetry, duo interpretation with partner Hackenmueller and duo improvisation with partner Eva Hesse.
Nguyen has competed for four years. He loves to compete and he draws inspiration from other competitors and his friends. Preparation involves memorization and repetition. One time, he said, he spent three hours repeating his poem.
Hackenmueller likes working with the team.
“They are my friends,” she said. “I like helping the underclassmen do better to constantly build and improve throughout the season.”
Hackenmueller said “speech makes you a better communicator not only because it gives you skills to talk with others and perform. It helps you take constructive criticism and apply that to what you are doing and improve.”
Maray, a senior, is competing in speech for a second year. Her friends drew her to speech after she participated in Knowledge Bowl her first two years of high school.
Hesse has experience in theater as well as speech. In speech “it’s just you and skills, no stage or costumes.”
Speech, she said, helped her get over a fear of public speaking and improved her memorization skills.
“Speech is my favorite part of high school,” she said. “I can’t wait for speech season to start.”
Speech events are back in person this year after Zoom events during the pandemic.
“You can’t simulate that audience, that applause, the reaction on faces,” Ronyak said. “Speech really shows (students’) ability to face fear of speaking. For 10 minutes they are commanding the room. It’s a skill they can use the rest of their lives.”