MURRAY — The fact that two of his Murray High School speech team members won a state championship earlier this week was obviously quite enjoyable for Coach Michael Robinson.
Seniors Kat Jenkins and Chelham Antony took first place in improvisational duo, which led Murray High’s effort in taking fourth place overall.
However, it was the fact that they competed at all this year that Robinson said may have been the most memorable part. The tournament was conducted virtually for the first time in its history, a circumstance made necessary by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“When everything first began happening (with COVID-19), we were about to leave for Louisville (on March 12) to go compete in the state speech tournament and I just happen to be the chair of the Kentucky High School Speech League and I was on the phone that evening talking with people. We’re saying, ‘OK, this is shutting down,’ the NCAA is saying no in-person (basketball games), and this, that and the other,” Robinson remembered on Wednesday. “Then we had heard that the academic team state tournament was being moved to May (eventually canceled altogether). So that next week, we had a virtual meeting to talk about how to proceed and a group of us started talking about how we need to have a virtual competition.
“We said, ‘OK! Let’s do that.’”
There was a problem, though. With social distancing a must, it was decided by most of the coaches that any events involving teams of two people or more would have to be scrapped. Robinson disputed this idea.
“I was concerned about that because, in the spirit of the activity, if we’re going to have a competition where every child is gong to actively participate, then you need to have every event,” he said. “So I suggested that we still allow them to participate. They said, ‘OK Robinson! You feel good about this being able to happen, you come up with a way!’ I said, ‘OK.’
“And then I did.”
Robinson remembered that he and his fellow teachers at Murray High had recently been trained on a technology known as Google Meet, which allows for virtual communication. It would be this same technology that would enable the future problem solving teams from Calloway County Middle School and Calloway County High School to compete in state competitions a few weeks ago. Those teams both finished in the top six places and now advance to an international competition.
“We had been trained on how to use this and I decided that it would be quite simple to still be able to have a round of competition where you could invite those students into the meeting, have each of them log in from their own home and they just go on to the link,” he said, noting how this became a mission that featured efforts on many fronts.
“We had a (virtual) team meeting (a few weeks before the tournament began in late April). I set up Google Classroom for our speech team students and we talked about what the tournament would look like. I answered questions they had and I could see that the kids (18 of them) were excited and energized about it. So we talked about several things, including how to put together a room in their house where they could perform that would have the best possible representation and the best acoustics.
“So every student had that challenge to overcome, plus they had to think about their families because they’re stuck at home with them. They had to talk to their families about how to do this without intruding on others. So one of our students did a storytelling piece in his garage and it was great.”
However, while it was very time consuming and exhaustive, Robinson said he believes everyone associated with the tournament believes it was worth it.
“The circumstances set before us were very unusual, but we always tell our students that they need to find a way to keep pushing forward, no matter what road blocks are in front of them,” he said. “We, as adults, were given the same challenge too and it was one of those situations where we had to set the example for them and that, as coaches, is what we tried to do.
“Oddly enough, this also was the 100th anniversary of the state tournament and I helped out with the middle school state tournament a week or two before the state tournament (in March) that our director, Steve Meadows, had said that, in 100 years, the state tournament had never been canceled. Even during World War II, it had never been canceled. They still found a way to have their competition.
“We didn’t want to break that tradition, so we found a way to keep moving forward.”