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From ‘pipe dream’ to reality: national speech tournament arrives in Bellevue

Raegan Rains
Junior Shaylee Hobbs passionately performs her program oral interpretation piece.

Bellevue West: a typical high school situated in a city overshadowed by the better-known Omaha, situated in a state that may or may not be recalled by a majority of the U.S. population. And it is here where a forensics team of passionate individuals has been preparing to host this year’s National Individual Events Tournament of Champions, or, more simply, NIETOC.

The idea began back in 2022 at the start of that year’s NIETOC tournament. According to head forensics coach Becca Hier, it was about time Bellevue West held a tournament of their own. Hier texted Matt Heimes, the president of NIETOC’s national organization and asked if there was a chance to host in Nebraska.

“He told me, ‘Go ahead and apply, get it done before the tournament is over and see what happens,’” Hier said. “And so we did.”

Then Hier awaited the results of the vote.

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 “And at that point, it was kind of a pipe dream. I really was like, ‘Yeah, okay. Are they really going to pick Nebraska?’” Hier said. “But then let’s see, I want to say it was sometime that summer, maybe in June or July, that I got a text that just was like, ‘Hey, I think the vote’s gonna go your way. I think we’ll be in Omaha in 2024.’”

Almost immediately, Hier began working out the logistics of holding a national tournament. She called Aaron Stueve, fellow teacher and graphic designer, to begin working on shirts for the event. After some conversations with Principal Kevin Rohlfs and Superintendent Dr. Jeff Rippe to get permission for hosting, Hier and her assistant coach Dan Christie delved into the planning.

Most of it has been practical, Christie said. They’ve been working on ensuring that everyone who is visiting is being taken care of. This includes scheduling shifts for volunteers, concessions and catering, making sure that the rooms they’ll be using are ready, and working with tech advisors to prepare the Wi-fi for an influx of visitors.

“And so this is kind of similar to work we’ve done in the past when we run our own local tournament, just on a massive scale,” Christie said.

Typically, the forensics team functions on the fund they receive from the district and whatever they fundraise through their dedicated booster club. However, schools hosting NIETOC are given a budget from NIETOC’s national treasury to finance the costs unique to the event. Hier said that staying within the budget has not been a challenge, but that doesn’t mean the planning is without its stressors.

“I mean, like, initially when things started I was super excited,” Hier said. “And then I looked at the giant list that I was sent of things that I had to accomplish, and I was like, ‘Yeah, why did I do this?’ And I did kind of panic. But I would say I would do it again because I’ve learned a lot about myself in terms of, like, what I’m capable of; I’ve learned a lot about the kids on the team, what they’re capable of doing.”

According to Hier, the students on the forensics team “didn’t blink” when she announced that Bellevue West would be hosting NIETOC.

“When I found out Bellevue West was going to be hosting, I was really excited because I don’t think people realize what Bellevue has to offer in the world of competitive speech, both in Nebraska and nationally,” junior Aarj Patel said. “And so I think it’s a really cool opportunity, now that we are seeing local and national success, to really invite people to Bellevue and Bellevue West to see what we’re made of and how our community has impacted the way we like to address topics or the way we advocate for ourselves and for each other.”

However, not everyone was immediately excited.

“Okay, well, here’s the thing: I’ve never been to a national tournament before,” junior Shaylee Hobbs said. “So this is my first national tournament — in Bellevue, Nebraska. Where I was born.”

Past locations have included cities like Denver and Kansas City, Missouri. But despite the traveling prospects, or lack thereof, the Bellevue West students who qualified for NIETOC are ready to do their best. For most, they’ve been refining their pieces throughout the entire school year, editing and re-editing after each competition to maximize their piece’s capacity for national acclaim.

“At one point you kind of hate speech for a little bit,” senior Andrew Hedin said. “But then, of course, you always remember why you do it. I always think back to why am I telling this message? And how can this impact someone else? I always want to try and help someone else and think less of it as a competitive event.” 

More than just a competition for material awards, it’s a chance to gain a new perspective. The competition is pulling in hundreds of kids from across the country, all of whom are from different backgrounds and walks of life.

“I think the best thing that I always think about is that at the end of the day, we’re all just kids, and we’re all choosing to be here,” Hedin said. “So the ability that we have to craft these messages and bring about these stories to life is just incredible. So I just like to be thankful for what the opportunity is, and how, like, the simplest thing of being seen in representation in any way can help to make someone feel better about themselves.”

This story was originally published on The Thunderbeat on May 7, 2024.