From the jesting to the serious, 608 students donning everything from togas to ties busily paced the halls in eerie anticipation of how the day would unfold. Because nobody could say for sure who would move on to the semifinals the next day of the ABC state speech, drama, and debate tournament held Friday and Saturday at Corvallis High School.
And hosting the event, which attracted about 1,000 people, including competitors, coaches, timers and observers, was no small task for Doug McConnaha, coach and event coordinator. And considering the building only accommodates 480 students, nearly every room in the school district was needed to house the 67 teams from all four corners of Montana.
"Hosting state can be a challenge," he said. And though he said he considers it an honor to host an event that will use 76 rooms in all, it's also a lot of work considering preparations begun before school started, according to participants.
Sarah Schumacher, Corvallis High School principal, said one of those rooms, a writing lab, has been shut down since early January when a ceiling pipe broke, causing water to surge in and flood the floor. The carpet and computers were removed for safety reasons.
Though the school is still waiting for a part to fix the pipe, she said the school temporarily reopened the room to one of the debate competitions.
Schumacher said she's delighted the annual event has revisited the school that hosted it once before, four years ago. "It's wonderful. It's a great opportunity for our students to have a meet on our home turf."
She said the event gathers the top eight finishers in each of the state's four divisions, and that about 20 students from Corvallis High School qualified this year.
One of them is Anais Dupois, an exchange student from Germany, who participates in the drama and serious duo divisions. And so far she said she's enjoying it.
"Just competing and meeting all those other people," she said.
McConnaha said until 10 years ago, a college in Great Falls hosted the tournament annually. When its organizer retired, four or five districts in the state began rotating as host.
"It's only fair," he said. "And the hope is that I would do a good enough job that the students will have a successful tournament."
And the home team's drama division is no stranger to success, as it took first place at last year's competition in Miles City. Schumacher lends much of that success to its coach.
"He is superb. We are very, very fortunate to have (McConnaha) as our speech coach here. He has put speech on the map."
McConnaha said he coaches not just because of his own experience competing in high school in Butte, but because of its importance on the life of a student, be they straight-A or not.
"I live for it," he said. "It's the most fun a person can have."
"Research shows if they participate in extracurriculars they are better students. It's good clean fun," she said.
Daniel Sybrant, the school superintendent and a judge in the event, said speech, drama and debate competitions, which he also participated in as a high school student, strengthens self-confidence, and builds communication skills among students of all levels of achievements and interests.
"I think it's a great opportunity for students to learn skills they can use throughout their lives. It permeates any profession you're in. It opens doors. It builds self-confidence. It fills a niche with students. I'm excited - I'm routing for them all," Sybrant said.
Andrew Yager, a senior at Joliet High School south of Billings who competed in last year's state competition, and who is considering a career in either law or political science, traveled more than seven hours to compete in the Lincoln-Douglas event, so-named after the 1858 debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. A little nervous, but nevertheless composed and articulate, Yager said he chose that category because of its more philosophical and ethical nature, "as opposed to arguing about politics on the surface."
For Yager, examining "why" a law is made is far more interesting than "how," he said.
Sophomore Tell Dietzler of Laurel High School southwest of Billings, a first-time participant who also competed in the pantomime event, said he finds the tournament's atmosphere inspiring.
"It's definitely a lot of fun. I've seen a lot of great competitors," he said.
A complete list of local winners will be published as soon as they are available.
Reporter Kay Woods can be reached at 363-3300 ext. 28