Parkersburg South High School debate team knows all the right words for success

Photo by Jeff Baughan Ethan Schaffer shows his trophy for finishing second in oral interpretation at the Yale University national tournament. Other members of the team include, from left, Cole Dickson, Madison Suszek, Brendin Flinn and Coach Michelle Talbott.

PARKERSBURG — Michelle Talbott’s classroom at Parkersburg South High School is off a side hallway.

Trophies sit on shelves and the tops of cabinets. She smiles when she is asked if she is running out of room to put trophies.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” she said.

Michelle and Ronnie Talbott have coached Parkersburg South’s speech and debate team for 10 years. The program began in1980, but has flourished in the last decade.

The Talbotts are from Parkersburg and went to school on opposite sides of the Little Kanawha River, Ronnie at Parkersburg High and Michelle at Parkersburg South.

Photo by Jeff Baughan Ethan Schaffer rehearses an oral interpretation in front of the Parkersburg South travel team. From left, Coach Michelle Talbott, Brendin Flinn, Madison Suszek, Emily Marlow and Cole Dickson. Marlow is soon to move up to the travel team, according to Talbott.

They went to college on full debate scholarships, he at Ohio University and she at Marshall University. Ronnie had five national placement awards at Ohio, finishing as high as fourth nationally in dramatic interpretation

In those 10 years, six of the Speaking Patriots have become lawyers or are in law school.

“One member was John Isner, who had a full scholarship to West Virginia University to debate,” Michelle said. “He finished as high as third nationally. He is currently an adjunct faculty member at Shepherd University in the Department of Political Science and Global Studies.”

Isner earned his bachelor’s of science in political science and sociology from Shepherd and his law degree from the West Virginia University School of Law.

Ronnie said in the forensic world of competition, “there are about 24 upper-level schools and there’s everyone else.

Photo by Jeff Baughan Cole Dickson does research on a laptop, front, while Madison Suszek, left, listens to Brendin Flinn, right, rehearse a portion of his argument.

“Bill Thompson, the coach at Nova Southeastern University School in Fort Lauderdale told me it normally takes 10-15 years to establish a national team,” Ronnie said. “He said South has managed to do it in four-to-five years. He also said debate was an event which normally doesn’t give out awards to new schools but South has managed to carve out a spot in a short time.”

Many of the prestigious private schools with forensics programs have budgets to go along with the elite status.

“Some of those private schools have budgets of $80,000 a year with no fund raising. A couple of people write a check and off they go.” Ronnie said.

The South budget is $17,000 for the year. The teams raises most, if not all, of the money themselves.

Travel is usually by a county vehicle and private cars. Entry fees are charged per category, per student and per school along and another expense is lodging, which can be $300-$400 a night, Michelle said.

Photo by Jeff Baughan Madison Suszek, left, listens to Brendin Flinn, right, argue his point. Parkersburg South High School Debate coach Michelle Talbott, center, takes notes from the rehearsal.

“So you see, a weekend can easily be $1,200 for hotel, meals and travel. Yale was a 12-hour drive, one-way,” she said.

More students participating raises the budget needed.

“We’re not a spectator sport,” Michelle said. “We don’t sell programs and we don’t have advertising hanging on the walls. There’s not a booster club. Any fund raising project we have has to be approved of before we can proceed with it but that’s never been a problem.”

She then said, with a slight smile and laugh, “but if anyone wanted to give us money, we certainly would be appreciative of that.”

Seven forensics teams remain among West Virginia high schools, she said. Once there were 32 teams.

“It’s a dying thing in West Virginia and it’s a shame,” she said.

Besides South, there are teams at Parkersburg High, Wheeling Park, Huntington, Morgantown, Linsly of Wheeling, John Marshall and Braxton. Linsly is the only private school and Braxton is the only public school below the Class AAA level.

Only South competes consistently on the national level according to Michelle.

Teams are scouted in the same manner as athletics teams, Ronnie said;.

“You have to know what pieces they are doing, who’s on the team and how are they doing the piece,” he said.

“Just one thing,” Michelle said, “you can’t video tape, you can’t record. You can only scout by what your eyes and ears tell you.”

Ronnie said those who scout also are scouted.

“National teams have been to enough tournaments they know our school. South’s reputation as a strong program has been established,” he said. “We typically are competing against the same people at every tournament. South’s national reputation for forensics is growing as strong as its wrestling program reputation has become.”