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Positively MN: Longtime Speech Coach Leaves Undeniable Legacy

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APPLE VALLEY, Minn. (WCCO) – If it’s 3 o’clock on any given afternoon, you can probably find Pam Wycoff listening to a speech.

As the head coach at Apple Valley High School for 24 years, Wycoff has spent countless hours teaching students the intricacies of public speaking. From delivery and vocal inflection to eye contact and body language, everything is intensely analyzed.

“We help kids have the confidence to compete hard, enjoy being in front of an audience and truly love what they’re doing,” Wycoff said. “All of that makes you a really good speaker, but being the best really boils down to competitive drive.”

That work ethic, featuring long hours and meticulous attention to detail, has built Apple Valley into one of the most successful forensic programs in the nation.

This year will be Wycoff’s last, leaving an undeniable legacy that stretches a quarter-century.

Since 1989, Apple Valley has produced 73 state champions. Of the 103 students that have reached the coveted final round at two National Forensic League tournaments, 23 have been named National Champions.

“To be a part of something so big when you’re so young, it’s fundamentally changed how I approach life,” said Nader Helmy, a senior and two-time national champion in Original Oratory. “I think overall, it’s made me a better person.”

When he defends his title in Birmingham next month, Helmy will face the most intelligent, articulate speakers the country has to offer. But some of his toughest competition will be familiar faces.

Apple Valley’s success has been contagious, pushing other schools in the District to develop nationally-renowned programs of their own.

In 2012, four of the six national finalists in Oratory were from District 196 — two from Apple Valley High School, one from Eastview and one from Eagan.

“California and Texas are very strong and parts of Florida are very good, but if you were to go to the national tournament now, Minnesota would be one of the strongest states represented,” Wycoff said.

Several program alumni have gone on to great professional success, but are still remembered for their speech achievements. Near the school’s entrance, a Wall of Fame features national champions’ pictures and tournament wins. Every year, speech and debate members pose for full-color posters, similar to the football or basketball team.

Despite the trophies and accomplishments, Wycoff’s real legacy is giving thousands of young people a leg up in life, encouraging them to embrace a concept that is widely feared: public speaking.

Pam credits her husband, Joe, also a coach of the team, for making those speech skills easily translatable to everyday life.

“Sometimes I think the kids we help the most are those who never make a round at state but they gain a sense of confidence in the power of the word,” Joe Wycoff said. “Those are the people who come back and say they are so happy to have been involved in the program.”

“The big picture — the real final round — is the time you nail the interview and land that dream job, or stand up at a school board meeting and advocate for what you think is important,” Pam Wycoff said.

Combined they’ve coached for 75 years. Pam Wycoff says she’ll teach at Apple Valley for a few more years. Her husband, though, will retire from both education and speech this year.

Four current Apple Valley assistants will assume head coaching duties.

“It’s been a really great run and (letting go) is emotional for us,” Pam Wycoff said. “But we’re happy with where we are and where the program is. It’s the right way to go out.”

(Note: The reporter is an Apple Valley alum and was four-year member of the program.)

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