Successful Ardmore High School speech and debate team led by new coach Noel Collins

Michael D. Smith

With any new academic year comes transition and change, whether they are welcome or not. Beginning an academic year in 2020 has its own inherent challenges, but none seem to be fazing speech and debate at Ardmore High School.

For members of The Act, the name of the speech and debate team at AHS, the biggest change this year will be leadership. Noel Collins will begin his first year at the helm of The Act after the departure of longtime head coach Brian Gunter, who started a 12-year career in Lone Grove with Collins as one of his first freshman students.

The ACT members review potential rosters while head coach Noel Collins (right) speaks about the upcoming season Wednesday. Despite COVID-19, Collins said speech and debate in Oklahoma is planning to continue. "[W]e’re moving forward and finding some normalcy much faster than I thought that we would," he said.

After taking over The Act in 2014, Gunter expanded the program and started to achieve success to the point of capping the roster at 80. By 2016, the team was recognized as a member of the National Speech and Debate Association’s 100 Club and joined the 200 Club the following year. Gunter also received a statewide award for leading the AHS speech and debate team to success at multiple competitions.

In 2018, the team won its first one-act play state championship since 1962 and successfully defended the title the following year. Gunter left Ardmore on a high note with the team's recent accolades and accepted a position at a performing arts conservatory in Harlingen, Texas, over the summer.

“Building what I built at Ardmore I think was a springboard that allowed me to attain this position that I have accepted,” Gunter said by phone on Tuesday. “When I say springboard, I mean that I don’t think it’s something I could have gotten prior to working at Ardmore. I don’t think I would have been considered for it.”

Collins, who worked as an assistant coach alongside Gunter for five years, may get a little nervous considering the speech and debate team’s success under his predecessor but doesn’t think the shoes he’s been left are unfillable.

“There are very few coaches in Oklahoma who have had the track record of success that he’s had, not just here but in his previous stint at Lone Grove,” Collins said on Wednesday. “I have enough faith in my skills that I think, that while I may not ever achieve the complete level of success (as) consistently as he has, I know enough about this activity that this squad is going to continue to be successful.”

The squad indeed has a good chance of success this year with anywhere from 30 or 40 students expected to take part. Collins said he is happy with the number of incoming freshmen and new sophomores and is very happy about the number of veteran students returning.

“We do have some senior leadership who has been here, who can guide these new students through the transition process,” he said. Considering students returning already know him as an assistant coach, Collins expects the connections to help everyone during the new academic year.

Officially taking the position of head coach will also help Collins, who took on a major coaching role last year while also being responsible for teaching a full load of English courses. This year, he teaches one advanced placement English class and devotes the rest of his professional time to fine arts, theater and speech and debate. 

“I got a taste of trying to do this job with way more on my plate, so even though I do have more responsibility this year and the buck does stop with me, it’s almost as if it’s a little bit easier because that’s all I have to focus on,” Collins said.

Noel Collins, head coach of Ardmore High School's speech and debate team The ACT, stands near recent championship trophies Wednesday. Collins served as an assistant coach for five years before taking the helm ahead of the 2020-2021 season.

One challenge he and other speech and debate coaches across the state have to figure out is how competition season will be held. While he doesn’t expect The Act to begin competing until later in October, he is working with colleagues across the state and the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activity Association on whether virtual options can be considered.

“And even now we’re not entirely certain what that means yet. We’ve got a meeting in September, a coaches meeting, to sort of hash out how this is going to work,” Collins said, noting fluidity of planning any events due to the pandemic.

“But we’re moving forward and finding some normalcy much faster than I thought that we would.”

For now, Collins said his team is spending the first few weeks of the semester reviewing scripts. Even early in the year, Collins knows what lesson he wants students to take away from the season.

“Adaptability is a really great skill that, if they haven’t learned it already, this year is going to offer them opportunity after opportunity to master it,” he said.

Looking at the future of AHS speech and debate, Collins doesn’t anticipate any major changes to the program. He only expects upgrades.

“It’s taking the foundation and trying to build not a bigger or better house, just slightly different,” he said. “We want to modernize it a little bit.”