Speech and debate may not involve the jarring contact of football or rugby, or the physical thrill of an emphatic slam-dunk in basketball or a tape-measure home run in baseball. But it is, in its way, every bit as competitive as a conventional sport. And a high school can take every bit as much pride in the achievements of its speech team as in the accomplishments of its football team.

Local speech and debate fans will have a chance Friday and Saturday to cheer on two Pekin Community High students as they compete in the Illinois High School Association Speech State Finals. The Pekin High School S’Pekin Dragons participated earlier this month in the IHSA Sectional tournament. Thirty-two schools vied for a handful of state qualifying placements. As a team, the S’Pekin Dragons tied for sixth place. Two team members, seniors Sammi Probasco and Alexander Redding, qualified for individual honors in the state tournament.

“I’m proud of my entire team,” said Scott Pyle, S’Pekin Dragons head coach. “I would say with the year that we had and the amount of work that went into this year, the state qualifiers are the best possible representations of the hard work that everybody put in. They put in the most hours. They were practicing before school, on their breaks during school and after school.”

Probasco qualified for the state tournament by placing third in the sectional competition in extemporaneous speaking and by winning the sectional championship in the impromptu speaking category. For her extemporaneous presentation, she had 30 minutes to prepare before speaking for six minutes about the importance of North Korea’s unification with South Korea for this year’s Winter Olympics. In the impromptu category, she was given two minutes to prepare before delivering a six-minute discourse on proverbs related to determination. 

“In my events, the theme varies depending on what questions I draw,” said Probasco. “It will be interesting to see what kind of questions I get for the state tournament. I’m really excited to get out there and give it my all. I’ve dreamt of this since my first year of high school. I’m happy to be going out on a high note, and I’m proud to be going to state. I draw a lot of different examples for my themes from what I remember. I read a lot of books that have strong women characters, because I feel like that’s undervalued in our society. It seems to be working.”

Redding qualified for the state tournament by placing third in sectional competition in the original comedy category. Unlike Probasco, he will offer the same presentation at the state level that he developed for the sectional tournament.

“My original comedy is about a man who is being trained to be the next Grim Reaper,” said Redding. “My character has recently died, and the Grim Reaper wants to retire. Throughout the story, the Grim Reaper-in-Training goes through different trials to see if he can progress to his mentor’s level. I wrote it with the help of my coaches. I’m excited to be in the state tournament, because a chance to perform for so many people is a great opportunity. I get a lot of my inspiration from everyday life. I see things that I find funny and sort of blow them up. I like to find the humor in life.”

The top two finishers in each category will have an opportunity to compete at the national level. The IHSA State Speech finals will begin at 8 a.m. Friday and will continue until 8 p.m. Saturday at the Peoria Civic Center, 201 SW Jefferson St., Peoria. The event is open to the public. For more information, visit http://www.peoriaciviccenter.com/home.