The Thunder Basin High School speech and debate team had accepted the fact that its season was likely over, but received news last week that the state meet will still be held.

The team was halfway to Green River for the state championships March 12 when the call came with the news that the event had been called off. The bus turned around and it seemed the rehearsed speeches and months of research would go unused.

Even national qualifier Sarah Cole threw away most of the research and material for her extemporaneous competition, figuring there was no reason to keep it.

But last week the Wyoming High School Activities Association announced that the state championships would indeed be held this week, Wednesday through Friday, but in an online format.

Cole, a junior, had heard rumors of a possible online state event, but the news still put her into scramble mode.

“Of course, I still have the Google doc with my case on it, but I had thrown away all the evidence I had collected because I thought we weren’t going to be having state,” Cole said. “It’s definitely been a lot of preparation for this, re-familiarizing ourselves with the cases.”

The effort to make the state championships happen was welcome news for Cole, who said it was “very devastating when it was canceled.” But the online format also brings some concerns.

The largest one for Cole is the nonverbal communication and body language that play such large roles in a speech or debate. She said she likes to be moving around when she’s delivering her speeches.

But the competitions will primarily be held through Zoom videos, so the nonverbal portion will be limited. Another concern with Zoom is how well it will work for events like congressional debate, where 12-15 students debate laws that have been written by other students, TBHS speech and debate coach Deneen Redd said.

The University of Wyoming is “basically going to run the tournament,” which has alleviated some of the concerns, Redd said. UW’s director of forensic speech and debate, Matthew Liu, has “a lot of experience with distance remote platforms for speech and debate,” Redd said.

“It’s kind of odd that’s he would be in our state and we would be able to use him,” she said. “He kind of knows how to do this kind of stuff and he also has a tech guy.”

While the online format won’t be ideal in many cases, it provides Cole and senior teammate Saber Smith an opportunity to prepare for the big stage. Both qualified for nationals earlier this season at the district championships — Cole in extemp and Smith in Lincoln-Douglas debate and congressional debate.

“One reason we want to do state is because nationals is going to be online also,” Cole said. “This will definitely be a very good practice run for how nationals will be, so we will be very well prepared for that.”

The other reason Cole wants to compete is for more hardware. After taking first at districts, she said that “of course I want to win.” She also doesn’t want to set too many lofty goals, knowing that so much will be different.

Redd didn’t make competing at state mandatory for any of her team because it had been out of their minds for so long. Cole and Smith were the only ones from either TBHS or Campbell County High School who decided to take their chances with the online format.

Redd has held coaching sessions with them during the days leading up to the competition, but said they’ll be on their own once the competition starts. That part would be the same regardless of the format, because she can’t coach much once the competition starts.

The preliminary rounds will be held after school hours before the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals are held all day Saturday.

Regardless of the outcome, Cole has another crack at this next year, but she understands how important it is for seniors like Smith to get their last shot.

“I think it’s very beneficial for the seniors this year. A lot has been taken away from them, so I’m very excited that they get the opportunity to show all their hard,” Cole said.

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