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East Grand Forks speech team hones skills in hopes of repeat win at state tournament

East Grand Forks Senior High junior Cam Pederson, competing in the creative expression catagory, rehearses Tuesday for the Minnesota high school state speech contest today in the Twin Cities. For the second year in a row Senior High won the Class A Section 8 title and qualified for the state contest.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD1 / 2
Abby Plumley rehearses her her presentation in the storytelling catagory that she will present today at the Minnesota Class A state speech tournament in the Twin Cities.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD2 / 2

East Grand Forks junior Abby Plumley stood in a classroom Monday and acted like a young man on a horse, a strange elderly woman, a man holding a goose and several other characters, all featured in a story she recited within about five minutes.

Afterward, assistant coach Sam Gruenberg critiqued her performance. She could improve on her narration, he said.

“Every time Hans gets a new animal, he should immediately interact with it, rather than you, the narrator, tell us about it,” he said.

Plumley was rehearsing not for a play but for the Class A state speech tournament, an event held in Blaine, Minn., on Friday and Saturday. After several months of sacrifice and memorization that rivals theater actors, 18 students are traveling to the tournament today and the potential victory couldn’t be sweeter: This is the second time in a row team members have won their section meet and advanced to the state competition.

In the past, the district had rarely advanced to state but now that’s changing, said senior high coach Kristine Gruenberg, one of several at the high school and middle school level. Student motivation is a large part of their success, she said.  

“For our captains last year to set it up and say, ‘We believe in everybody,’ created a different climate and culture,” she said. “And with the win last year, the goal is to repeat. You don’t want to be a once and done.”


For the uninitiated, speech team members can compete in one of 13 categories, which include storytelling, creative expression and extemporaneous speaking.

Students on the team say dedication is necessary to succeed. They spend about 15 hours a week practicing and tweaking their performances inside and outside the classroom. Every Saturday, they spend about 13 hours traveling to and attending a meet somewhere in Minnesota, rising to get on the bus by 5 a.m., said Gruenberg. Students receive individual scores at each meet, and only the ones with the best scores end up competing at state.

For Plumley, all of this means fewer hours at work, no participation in a school play and long hours at the school, she said.

“As for family time, I don’t get to go on a lot of trips,” she said. “I have to basically stay in this area for those months.”

Sometimes, preparation can be intense. Team captain Emma Shelton, a senior, once memorized dozens of research citations throughout the season while junior Cam Pederson, who chose the creative expression category, said he faced the challenge of creating a fairy godmother who was “risqué and sensual.”  

Plumley, who must spend her season memorizing 15 short reading selections for the storytelling category, has a “backlog” of characters voices and mannerisms logged in her memory, she said.

“I just pull out those voices and I fit them into what they’re going to say, and I make up their own dialogue on the spot,” she said.

Constant memorization and practice lead to some odd behavior, they said. At any given meet, dozens of students will be lined up facing walls or lockers, rehearsing their performance over and over.

Future skills

Students say their involvement on the team has given them a new kind of confidence and useful skill set.

Plumley, for instance, knows how to handle uncertainty. At a meet, she must randomly select a folktale to perform and has 30 minutes to prepare.

“I walk in and I don’t know what I’m going to do that day,” she said.

Shelton’s category requires research throughout the year so she can prepare for her group discussion at the meet. She referred to a 9-pound or so “bucket” of research she lugs to tournaments that represents the wealth of knowledge she’s accumulated over the years, ranging from information on the Electoral College to airport security to inland waterways, she said.

“For me, it’s very much about trusting myself to know what I’m talking about and even when I have no idea, just to sound confident,” said Shelton, who will be entering the Navy after she graduates.

 For Pederson, who has been involved in many school plays and performances, the creative expression category helps him fine-tune his writing and memorization chops. He plans on attending college in the area before pursuing performance arts work later on.

Through speech, he can learn how to read audience reactions and find out what people respond to.

“When I’m in a show or something, it helps with character development and even on-the-fly choices and character thinking,” he said.

All of the sacrifice and hard work is worth it, students said.

“It’s all so rewarding, standing at awards at sections and having your name called out for the top three spots at state,” Shelton said. “I think that is one of the best feelings in the entire world.”

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit 

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