Sterling High School’s forensics team’s success over the past 25 years is almost unprecedented, not just in acting and speech, but even compared to some of the brightest stars in sports competition.
Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics teams won 11 NBA championships in 13 years. Sterling won 13 state forensics titles in a row from 1991 through 2003. Sterling followed that up by matching legendary UCLA coach John Wooden’s streak with 10 championships in the last 12 years.
Longtime coach Betsy Dutton appreciates the team’s success, but what she likes more about the extracurricular activity is the opportunity to teach students one-on-one. Forensics includes a myriad of speech and acting events, and all but two – duet acting and improvised duet acting – are individual events.
Providing all that individual teaching takes a lot of womanpower, especially with 54 students on the team, so Dutton is joined by co-coaches Marilee Kruse and Rebekah Wagley.
The team’s success can make students more receptive to that teaching.
“Kids, when they join the program, they buy in,” Dutton said.
Senior Hannah Hendricks said “buying in” is the first piece of advice she would give to freshmen joining the team.
“Trust the coaches, and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone, because that’s usually where you’ll find success,” Hendricks said Saturday at a meet hosted by Sterling.
Senior Kaci Wilson agreed that getting out of a comfort zone was important. She said she didn’t expect to enjoy forensics – she started off taking it to fulfill a class requirement – but now it is one of her favorite school activities.
“I always tell the freshmen, ‘You have to do it at least once,’ “ Wilson said.
Do students feel pressure to keep up the team’s level of success?
“It’s not necessarily a pressure,” Hendricks said. It is more a sense of duty to make the most of the opportunities provided.
Wilson said pressure to reach a certain competitive accomplishment – like winning a state title – wouldn’t make a lot of sense, because there is so much out of the students’ control. That includes the subjective judging in forensics and the quality of competition.
Senior Alex Veliz said the coaches put students in a position to succeed by helping them find their niches.
“They do such an amazing job finding your strengths and improving them,” Veliz said.
After a student writes a speech or memorizes an acting scene, the real work begins.
“You have to give it life,” Veliz said. “You have to give it emotion.
“If you’re just reciting words on paper, you’re not going to get very far,” he added.
Dutton said several factors have contributed to Sterling’s success in forensics. For starters, all of the school’s fine-arts programs – music, visual arts and theater – are active and popular.
“It’s cool to do arts at Sterling High School,” Dutton said.
With two daily forensics classes, the coaches also are able to give students a lot of individual coaching, Kruse added.
Wagley said the coaching includes evaluating students’ strengths, preferences and comfort zones and helping them find pieces that are a good personal fit. She said Dutton is a “voracious” reader, so Sterling has an in-depth catalog of ideas for students, instead of just relying on tried-and-true pieces.
Sterling forensics also has benefited from continuity. Dutton said she is in her 34th year coaching the team, and Kruse is in her 26th year with the team. Wagley is only in her second year at Sterling, but she coached at Little River prior to that.