Tyler Myers, 16, left, and John Ponger, 17, of Poland Regional High School compete in the Duo Interpretation of Literature category in the speech and debate tournament held at Edward Little High School in Auburn on Saturday. The duo placed first in their category.

The statewide speech and debate competition judges students in 17 categories and rewards schools that have the greatest number of
high-scoring students. The winning schools on Saturday:

Speech: First place, Cape Elizabeth; second,
Poland Regional High School; third, Lewiston High School.

Debate: First place, Cheverus High School; second, Deering High
School; third, Presque Isle.

congress: First, Scarborough High School; second, Bangor High School; third, Greely High School in Cumberland. 

AUBURN — John Ponger and Tyler Myers faced the audience, but it was to each other that they spoke. 

And yelled.

And sang. 

For 10 minutes the Poland Regional High School students performed a condensed version of Rich Orloff’s play, “I Didn’t Know You Could Cook,” a comedy about a young disabled man who tells his older, conservative brother that he’s gay. They had no props, no costumes, no music or lighting. Their stage was the front of an Edward Little High School classroom with the desks pushed back a little.

But at the statewide speech and debate tournament on Saturday, the Poland teenagers made the audience laugh and impressed their judges.

Ponger, 17, considered their performance after the fourth and final round. His short appraisal: “Good.”

But they would have stiff competition. 

More than 200 students from 20 schools descended on Edward Little for the all-day speech, debate and student congress competition. Student congress is an all-day event in which students write mock legislation and argue for their bills. Speech and debate events are done in rounds, with debate testing students’ ability to argue and express themselves and speech testing students’ ability to speak well and perform dramatic or comedic skits. Saturday’s event included 17 categories of competition and 80 judges.

It was the first time in years that Edward Little had hosted a tournament.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of fun,” said Kris Deveau, Edward Little’s speech and debate coach and the organizer of Saturday’s tournament. “It’s one of those things that build the community of public speaking.”

A dozen speech and debate tournaments will be held this year before the state competition. Students do not have to do well in tournaments to qualify for states, but the practice usually helps. 

Elijah Breton, 15, began competing in tournaments last year as a Poland Regional High School freshman. He did so well in the state speech competition that he went on to nationals.

“It’s a great activity to do on Saturdays,” he said. “If you have 12 hours on a Saturday.”

Students spend anywhere from a few minutes to several hours a week refining their performances with their school speech and debate coaches. On Saturday, speech and debate students competed in three or four rounds. Student congress competitors stayed behind closed doors in a daylong marathon session. All students were judged on skill and composure, plus qualities specific to their categories.

The students with the most points win.  

This year, Breton and his speech partner, 17-year-old Natasha Johnson, have won first, second and third places for their 10-minute performance of  “Barbara’s Wedding,” a play by Daniel Stern. They had one wish for their performance in Saturday’s tournament.

“Hopefully place in the top three,” Johnson said. 

Ponger wasn’t sure how he and his partner would do Saturday. Involved in speech and debate for three years, Ponger loves the thrill of competition and loves performing in front of audiences.

“Acting is a passion for me,” he said. 

He’s never done well enough to get to nationals. But this might be the year.

At least, Saturday’s judges thought he was pretty good.

Ponger and his partner won first place in their category. Breton and Johnson came in third.

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