After a senior friend convinced freshman Philomena Williams to join the rebirthed speech and debate program at Van Horn High School, Williams competed in two tournaments and then planned to quit, but her coach convinced her to rejoin.

“I just kind of realized it was my place sophomore year, and it's been something I loved,” said Williams, who two weeks ago week capped her high school career by placing fourth in the program of oral interpretation at the National Speech and Forensics League Tournament in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Her performance highlighted the area's contingent at nationals. In addition, Blue Springs South's Robert Appleberry placed ninth overall in the same category behind Williams.

In program of oral interpretation, students take pieces from all types of published work and piece them together for a 10-minute performance based on a certain theme, sometimes playing multiple characters.

“The idea is to always give a message through your script,” Williams said. “It should teach the audience something. It's one of the most pointed events you do.”

For her subject, which she chose in October and finessed throughout the school year, Williams discussed the stigmatization of those on food stamps and other forms of welfare and how that can continue a poverty cycle.

“It's something very close to home,” she said. “In different family situations I've been in, we've always been on some kind of welfare.”

Williams had gone to a handful of national competitions prior to Fort Lauderdale but hadn't placed anywhere near as high as fourth. She said the multiple rounds of competition felt like a “marathon” – the finals marked the 13th round – and she remembered feeling anxious to see the poster revealing the six finalists from 236 original competitors. She was last of those six to speak.

“That fulfilled a dream,” she said of making the finals. “When I was backstage, it didn't matter about the other people performing or what the judges think. There's thousands of people watching, and you leave it all on that stage.”

“I was terrified out of my mind, but it just melted away. I knew what had to do, was blessed to do.”

Williams, who will attend Concordia University in Nebraska with a speech scholarship, plans to major in education and hopefully teach theater or English and coach speech and debate.

“Having a safe space to get up and perform for 10 minutes, where I didn't feel small or poor, that's what was so attractive about speech for me,” she said.

Williams was the first speech and debate national finalist from the Independence School District in five years.

Also from ISD, Truman's Lorinda Ruz and Maddie Petentler advanced to the 10th round and finished in the top 34 in policy debate, the second year in a row they advanced out of the preliminaries. Petentler ranked 24th out of 370 policy speakers.

Grain Valley's Scott Overfield became the first national qualifier in school history and advanced to the 10th round in original oratory.

Blue Springs' Jamie Berger and Kaitlyn Johnson advanced to the eighth round of duo interpretation, and Blue Springs South's Benjamin O'Brien advanced to the eighth round in informative speaking.

Lee's Summit North's Xavior Lewis advanced to the ninth round in Lincoln-Douglas debate, and Tehya Robinson (dramatic interpretation) and Cydni Stanford (humorous interpretation) advanced to the eighth round.

Also competing at nationals, several of them in multiple categories, were:

• Truman: Nicholas Guppy, Elijah Rojas and Gabbie Petentler.

• William Chrisman: Nicolette Bowman and Tyler Zeller.

• Fort Osage: Alexis Cook.

• Blue Springs: Bill Mears, Nafi Seife, Dakota Epperson, Pascasie Redhage, Alex Lor and Caleb Shull.

• Blue Springs South: Brendan Spicer, Drake Wood, Lauren Manade, Riley Smith, Hanna Stracener, Alex Van Dyke and Tavarus Pennington.