By now, many of you have probably heard about the debacle that rattled the Class A Speech and Debate tournament this past week. In a devastating turn of events for Whitefish High School, a tabulation error was found that awarded the state championship to Columbia Falls High School. I could sit here and write for pages on how I believe our team deserves the win, how some unsportsmanlike behavior may have altered the outcome, but I won’t. Because, despite this major disappointment, it is not the most notable thing that happened over the course of the season, the state competition, and the past few days.
I have had the immense fortune of having been able to get to know the members of the Whitefish High School Speech and Debate team over my past two years here. Last year, I myself was a competitor. While I could not compete this year for personal reasons, I have made lasting friendships during the time I have continued to spend with the team. I have never come across a group of kids more dedicated to their work and each other, more kind, considerate, and compassionate, more hardworking and of greater integrity. If you have not had the fortune of seeing these kids work together as a team, as friends and competitors, then you have not seen what true sportsmanship looks like.
It is not surprising that these traits shine throughout the team so thoroughly, considering who the coach is. I have rarely met a person more inspiring, encouraging, and understanding than Ms. Sara Mueller. A woman wholeheartedly dedicated to her job at the middle school and her duties as coach and mentor to the team, I honestly don’t know how she manages. However, she does it, she does it exceptionally well. I have never felt more cared for and respected by a teacher, and I know the members of the team feel the same.
Above all, she teaches her students integrity. She teaches them kindness, respect, and sportsmanship. Her pride in her team is palpable as she stands at the front of the bus after every tournament and affirms that this is the bus she wants to be on. Even when she comes down with mono and spends the last month of the season with no voice, she is present, active in the lives of her students. Ultimately, she teaches her students not to be good speakers and debaters (although they are that), but to be good people. Great people, in fact. The best people that I have personally had the pleasure of knowing.
Because while Ms. Mueller is the fearless leader, the students are the heart and soul of the team. The seniors who have competed for four, three, two, or only a single year to lead their team to victory. The freshmen who have exemplified great courage to challenge their more experienced competitors. All these kids, who, while they compete in individuals events, create one cohesive team. Seeing them tumble through the chaos of the cafeteria between rounds to interrogate their friends and teammates about their last speech, seeing them laugh, chat, and use each other as pillows on the long bus rides around the state, I am struck with the familial bond that has been created amongst them. They celebrate each other’s victory, they comfort each other’s losses. They never blame their teammates or bemoan their position when they face a disappointing loss.
I have never witnessed a team, a group of people, with such mettle, such resilience, and such talent. I have never had a better group of friends, or a group of people whom I admire more. Despite the disappointment and sadness that came last week, I know that they will rise above and come back stronger than ever. Next year — oh, next year, Columbia Falls had better watch out.
Josephine Johnson is a senior at Whitefish High School.