Pandemic can't silence speech

Central speech team earns runner-up trophy at state final

Hinsdale Central senior and speech team member Sophie Biancalana said the season started out with her filming herself delivering motivational talks in her basement for competitions.

"It was definitely weird to not have audiences," she said of the asynchronous format due to COVID-19 protocols. "It's definitely a lot harder. Usually I feed off the reactions of other people. I kind of just had to imagine what the reaction would be a go off my own energy."

Thankfully, officials eventually were able to switch to Zoom-based live competitions, including Saturday's IHSA state final, where Central's energy, talent and adaptability earned the school runner-up honors. Biancalana placed second in oratorical declamation and teamed with junior Jack Huber to take second in the dramatic duet acting category.

Team members were each in his or her own classroom on Zoom calls with judges and fellow competitors. Even the duet partners were separated. Biancalana said their well-rooted chemistry enabled them rise to the challenge.

"It was hard doing the performance not in the same room as him. I could see him, but it's not the same," she said. "I think it definitely helped that we were so close before."

Huber, who also placed second individually in dramatic interpretation, said resilience was critical.

"The bottom line is you have to find the mentality that makes you do your best," he remarked, saying he wanted to make sure Biancalana had a successful end to her Central speech career.

Senior Hari Rao, who took third place in radio speaking, said the toughest part about the early weeks of the season was not having an opportunity to tweak his performance between progressive rounds because it had to be pre-recorded.

"That was a little bit of a struggle sometimes," he said. "You wouldn't have a chance to alter things if you thought you could do something better."

Once the meets returned to a live format, he found himself regularly reaching the finals. Hari said getting to ring the school bell as a Red Devil team heading to state was not taken for granted this school year.

"We were one of the only activities that had a state meet to go to. It's a really rare opportunity in this climate," he said.

He acknowledged that not having people in the room with him mitigated the stress that normally accompanies the state atmosphere.

"Instead of feeling nervous for my final round, I was trying not to fall asleep," he said.

Senior Noor Mryan captured fourth place in both impromptu speaking and original oratory to cap off her four-year Central career.

"It's definitely rewarding as a senior, and it's going to be memorable for years to come," she said.

Like her cohorts, finding ways to resonate with listeners not in the room took special concentration.

"You had to make your emotions clear with your voice," she said.

In impromptu speaking, good organizational skills are also integral, she explained.

"You are given three prompts and you have two minutes to prep a six-minute speech," Mryan said. "That really makes you think quick on you feet and find examples that resonate with all different people."

Coach Paul Woods said he's proud of the way the team responded considering the uncertainty entering the season.

"Nobody really knew what to expect," he said, adding that he's proud of all involved across the state for working together. "The cool thing was the fact that the speech community in Illinois figured out a way to make this happen."

Other cool things: this was the Red Devils' third top-three finish in a row (champion in 2019, third in 2020) and the program's eighth state trophy in the last 10 years.

"We definitely have some really high-quality performances on our team," Woods said. "The students were ecstatic."

Senior Hayley Johnson and sophomore Tess McArdle also contributed to the team's fortunes with second place in prose reading and fifth place in humorous interpretation, respectively.

Huber said the team got better as the season wore on, including his own deliveries.

"By the end of the season everyone was kind of used to (the online format)," he said.

He recounted the agonizing wait as state competitors were told the results in ascending order.

"It was exciting while also terrifying. They went event by event and they had the six finalists on a Zoom call," he said. "You're listening on the Zoom, you're supposed to be smiling but what's going through your mind is, 'Don't call my name yet! Don't call my name yet!' "

Rao said coaches and players were furiously adding up points as categories were announced.

"We were all watching the awards ceremony, and after each event was called, we were tallying it and tallying it," he related.

In the end Wheaton Warrenville South seized the title with 35 points, followed by Central's 32 for second and Hinsdale South right behind with 31 to take third.

Myran's topic for impromptu oratory was the lack of small talk in online exchanges. She said the circumstances of the season also inhibited fellowship with new members of the team, which is normally very close-knit.

"I really tried to make an effort to get to know them," she said.

Biancalana echoed that feeling.

"(The novices) definitely didn't get to feel that team aspect," she said.

Biancalana intends to get to know them by keeping tabs on the team after she graduates, as those before her have done.

Woods expressed gratitude that the students' got their chance.

"It was definitely a bright spot in all of the strangeness that has been 2020 and 2021," he said. "This is amazing."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean