The NFHS Speech, Debate, Theatre and Academic Association is honoring 20 individuals with the 2020-21 Outstanding Speech/Debate/Theatre Educator Awards.
Seven of the 20 speech/debate/theatre awards are section awards, and the other 13 are state awards. Section recipients receive a plaque from the NFHS to be presented in their respective state, while state award recipients receive a certificate. Likewise, seven music section awards will be presented, along with 15 state award recipients.
Recipients of the 2020-21 NFHS Outstanding Speech/Debate/Theatre Educator Awards are:
SECTION: Section 2 – Molly Seifert, Kentucky; Section 3 – Pamela Ware, Georgia; Section 4 – Holly Stanfield, Wisconsin; Section 5 – Gary Harmon, Kansas; Section 6 – Magda Irizarry-Mirelez, Texas; Section 7 – Tanya Roundy, Utah; Section 8 – Kara Smith, Idaho.
STATE: Arkansas - Julie Rine; Arizona - Norm Rumsey; Colorado - David Montera; Iowa - Teresa Lawler; Illinois - Chuck Cavazos ; Minnesota - Ben Bakken Ballentine ; Mississippi - Darin Maier ; Missouri - Ed Kappeler ; Nebraska - Tommy Bender; Oklahoma - Christian Jones; Oregon - Ameena Amdahl-Mason; Virginia - Michael Villacrusis; Washington - Kristina Cummins.
Following are bios on this year’s 20 award winners:
Speech/Debate/Theatre Educator Award Bios
Molly Seifert is a teacher and forensics coach at Beechwood High School in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. She has been a middle school and high school educator for 18 years and has worn a variety of hats during her career, including director of musicals and one-act plays, competitive forensics teams coach, speech and drama teacher, and sponsor of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and Zoology Club.
Seifert is regional manager of the Kentucky High School Speech League, and she is a founding member of the Speech Professional Education Alliance of Kentucky (SPEAK). She has coaches numerous regional and state champions, as well as individuals who have advanced to national competition. Since 2005, Seifert has directed more than 20 plays with the Fort Mitchell Recreation Summer Drama Camp.
Seifert was inducted into the KHSSL Hall of Fame in 2019 and, in 2020, she was named Kentucky Coach of the Year by the National Speech and Debate Association.
Pamela Ware has been director of theatre and debate coach at Gainesville (Georgia) High School for the past 45 years after beginning her career in education as an English teacher and director of theatre in Selma, Alabama. She is truly a living legend at Gainesville High and has developed annual winning programs in One-Act Play and Literary for many years.
Ware has served on the Georgia Thespian State Board since 1975 and was president of the Alabama Thespian Association for three years in the 1960s. Ware has also been active in the Educational Theatre Association, serving on the Board of Trustees for 17 years as well as a term as president. She established the First International Troupe at Gainesville High School in 1975.
Ware received the Louisiana Tech College of Education Alumna of the Year award in 2015 and was a Louisiana Tech University Centennial Distinguished Alumnus in 1994. In December 1994, the Pam Ware Performing Arts Center was dedicated in Gainesville.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
Holly Stanfield has been involved in public school music education almost 40 years, including the past 30 years in the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Unified School District, and currently teaches theatre at Mary D. Bradford High School in Kenosha. Stanfield has led Bradford High School to become one of the most decorated schools in Wisconsin High School Forensic Association (WHSFA) history, particularly musicals in the One-Act Play 40-minute format.
Stanfield’s students have appeared numerous times on the WHSFA/Wisconsin High School Theatre Festival showcase state and more than a dozen times on the International Thespian Festival main stage. Stanfield was founding director of the Wisconsin chapter of the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), and she was invited by EdTA to direct the Thespian national cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie: School Edition.
Stanfield was inducted into the WHSFA Theatre Hall of Fame in the association’s second class and, in 2016, she was inducted into the EdTA Hall of Fame. She also was the 2014 recipient of the Children’s Theatre Foundation Reba Robertson Award and has been honored as Teacher of the Year on several occasions.
Gary Harmon has been involved as an English and speech and debate coach at the high school and college levels in Kansas for more than 55 years. After teaching and coaching at four Kansas high schools for 10 years, Harmon landed at Salina Central High School in 1984 and taught English, debate and speech, and coached debate, speech and baseball for 18 years. Since 2004, Harmon has taught speech, debate and English at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina.
Harmon’s debate teams at Salina enjoyed great success, including 4-speaker debate state champions in 1990 and 2-speaker debate state champions in 2001 and 2002. His 1993 team was Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) Lincoln-Douglas Debate state champion, and, in 1988, the National Forensic League (NFL) Student Congress Senator national champion.
Harmon, who started the state fair debates and high school debate camp that still operate today, is a two-time Kansas Speech Communications Teacher of the Year. He is a member of the NFL Coaches Hall of Fame (National Speech and Debate Association) and the Kansas Speech Hall of Fame (Kansas Speech Communications association).
Bay City, Texas
Magda Irizarry-Mirelez has been speech/debate coach and theatre director at Bay City High School in Bay City, Texas, for 23 years, after earning her bachelor’s degree from Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, and her master’s from the University of Houston. Mirelez’s Bay City speech teams have enjoyed tremendous success in Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL) competition.
Under Mirelez’s direction, the Bay City speech teams are four-time UIL state speech champions, including 14 UIL individual state champions. Mirelez has coached 86 UIL state qualifiers and 41 UIL state finalists. In 2008, Bay City was National Junior Forensic League CX Debate national champion, and Bay City was National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) School of Excellence recipient in 2005. Mirelez is a five-time UIL state theatre finalist director, and she has directed 35 full-length musicals and productions.
Among her many honors, Mirelez was the Bay City Teacher of the Year in 2018, and she received the Texas UIL Sponsor of Excellence award in 2012. Mirelez is a 2 Diamond NSDA Speech Coach.
Saratoga Springs, Utah
Tanya Roundy has taught English, debate, theatre, film literature and financial literacy at several schools in Utah and California the past 15 years, beginning at Dixon Middle School in Provo, Utah, in 2006, where she taught theatre, directed plays and the school musical. From 2007 to 2012, Roundy directed the theatre and speech/debate teams at North Sanpete High School in Mt. Pleasant, Utah.
During her years at North Sanpete, Roundy helped to create the Utah Theatre Teachers Association, the training and certification of judges and a program to run tournaments more efficiently. She also assisted with region and state tournaments conducted by the Utah High School Activities Association.
Roundy moved to California in 2012 and revitalized a theatre program during her three years at the school. She returned to Utah in 2015 and took over the debate team at Alta High School in Sandy. Within three years, she grew the debate team from five students to more than 30. She then moved to a charter school where she continued to enjoy success as the theatre and debate coach. Currently, Roundy is president of the Utah Debate Coaches Association.
Kara Smith has taught at three Idaho schools the past 20 years and currently teaches and coaches speech and debate at Timberline High School in Boise, where she has been since 2016. Smith was speech and debate coach at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for 16 years before moving to Boise in 2016. For three years (2016-2019), she coached at two Boise schools – Capital High School and Timberline High School.
Smith has been chair of the Inland Empire National Forensic League/National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) for two separate terms (2002-04 and 2010-16), and since 2018, she has been the Idaho State Speech commissioner.
Last year, Smith was selected Idaho Speech Arts Teacher of the Year and was inducted into the Idaho Speech Arts Teachers Association Hall of Fame. Among her other honors, Smith was Idaho State Debate Coach/Teacher of the Year in 2017 and received the NSDA Distinguished Service Citation Gold Key in 2018. In June 2021, she will receive her Fourth Diamond at the NSDA National Tournament.
In the past 20 years, Ameena Amdahl-Mason has left her mark on the Oregon speech and debate community. She is currently the assistant speech and debate coach at Clackamas (OR) High School, where she is also a math teacher. She and Jennifer LeSieur have worked closely as coaches since she arrived at Clackamas in 2007. Their efforts have paved the way for students to qualify for the national tournament in 2009, 2013, 2014, 2019 and 2020.
Amdahl-Mason’s history of serving her state is vast. In addition to coaching her Clackamas speech and debate team, she has been a member of the state championship committee since 2009. In 2014, she began serving the North Oregon National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) Committee. She assumed the role of Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) Proven Excellence Advisor (tracking alternate qualifications to the state tournament) in 2016 and became the district director for Clackamas’ state qualifying district in 2018.
Amdahl-Mason was among the first advocates for technology and the use of Tabroom, an online tournament management system. When the OSAA district and state championships moved to Tabroom, she assisted by leading the transition. In doing so, Amdahl-Mason learned available programs, created manuals and workshops, and developed a practice tournament that could be easily managed by other coaches.
Ben Bakken Ballentine
Ben Bakken Ballentine has served as Hill-Murray School’s artistic director for the past nine years in Maplewood, Minnesota. He looked to share lessons with students based on his experiences from high school through his time as a local professional actor. Ballentine’s teaching has drawn close to 25 percent of the student population to participate in Hill-Murray’s theatre program.
Since his foray into teaching began, Ballentine has become a highly coveted adjudicator for the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) One Act Play Contest. Under his direction at the competition level, Hill-Murray reached the State One Act Play Contest with its production of The Great Gatsby in Ballentine’s first year. The show earned a star rating. Since he started, Ballentine’s productions have appeared three times at state with two star ratings.
Ballentine’s program has been honored with many top year end awards over the years. Among those at the state level are The Spotlight Awards Outstanding Overall Achievement in Musical Theatre and starred performances at the MSHSL One Act Play State Festival.
Tommy Bender’s own high school experiences in speech and theater have served him well as an educator of 27 years. Equipped with a passion for those subjects, he gave back to his alma mater at Crete (NE) High School for eight years as a teacher and coach before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2002. There, he has served as Lincoln Southeast High School’s head speech coach and oral communications teacher.
While at Crete, Bender started a new chapter in the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). It was during this time that he also joined the executive committee of the Nebraska Speech Communication and Theatre Association (NSCTA), serving as its convention vice president. Bender’s work with these organizations continues today. He served as the NSDA South Chair for eight years and was NSCTA President from 2018 to 2020.
Among Bender’s accomplishments are the students who placed in the top fourteen in the nation at several national tournaments, in addition to the multiple district and state champions that he has coached. At Crete, where he helped grow the speech team from one to more than 25 students, Bender eventually earned his first NSDA Speech Coach of the Year award.
For more than 31 years, Chuck Cavazos has taught communications, composition and speech at Elk Grove (IL) High School. His current efforts consist of teaching a dual credit college speech program, which is offered in partnership with Eastern Illinois University. Cavazos’ expertise in the area translates to his role as head coach of the Elk Grove speech team, which has garnered many awards at the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state finals.
When wearing his coaching hat, Cavazos’ successes date to 1988 when his Thornton (IL) won the IHSA State Championship in speech. Once the head coach at Elk Grove in 1990, his speech team earned a fourth-place finish in 1994. In 2009, Elk Grove captured the state title in Humorous Duet Acting under Cavazos’ direction, and had the 2016 and 2017 individual state champion in oratorical declamation. Elk Grove has hosted the IHSA regional or sectional tournament on numerous occasions, as well as the IHSA state finals in 2000.
Cavazos has served on the IHSA State Tournament Committee for more than 20 of his 30 years in coaching. He is also an Illinois Speech and Theatre Association board member, who been a strong advocate of speech and theatre through a number of workshops and activities.
For Kristina Cummins, a love for theatre blossomed in high school thanks to her high school production of Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Since then, her journey from aspiring actress to veteran educator swapped her California roots for her current setting as the theatre arts teacher at Capital High School in Olympia, Washington. It is here she has grown the thespian program from 12 students to the more than 40 participating in it today.
Cummins and her cohorts produce two mainstage plays at Capital, as well as a large-scale musical and a student directed one act festival known as Dramafest. Competitively, Capital participates in thespian competitions for performance and technical theatre, as well as the state thespian festival. For the past seven years, Cummins’ thespian troupe has been recognized as a Gold Medal Honor Troupe.
As Cummins grew as an educator, she did so as a leader. In that capacity, she became involved with the Washington State Thespians. Cummins is currently in her sixth year as a co-director for the group, which has involved her overseeing association growth through new state theatre programs and expanding local and state festivals. Her other organizational contributions include serving as liaison to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) and the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI). Cummins’ work with the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA), a national thespian organization, has been ongoing since her time as a part-time theatre director at Tumwater (WA) High School.
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma
Christian Jones is the head debate coach and AP Seminar teacher for Union Public Schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma – a position he has held since 2011. In that time, more Union students have qualified for the National Speech and Debate (NSDA) National Tournament than those combined in the years leading to Jones’ arrival.
Only one year did Union not have a single student qualify for NSDA Nationals under Jones’ watch. In that span, however, they did qualify for every Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) state tournament. In 2017, Jones coached the high school policy debate team to the final round of the Urban Debate National Championship. He has also had two additional high school teams place in the top 20 at two different national championship tournaments. Jones also coached a middle school policy debate team to the final round of the 2017 NSDA Middle School Nationals.
Jones’ service to debate started in 2012 as a tournament director for the Union Forensic Society (UFS) Invitational Tournament. While he has served that role every year since, it has grown into one of Oklahoma’s largest tournaments in recent years and a qualifier for both the Extemp Tournament of Champions and National Individual Events Tournament of Champions (NIETOC). Since 2013, Jones has been an extemp prep room proctor for the NSDA National Tournament.
Ed Kappeler was new to Pacific, Missouri, in 1997 when a veteran educator helped reshape his idea of who he was as a teacher. In the years that followed, Kappeler relayed Dan McClain’s message into meaningful relationships with Pacific High School students as an English teacher, speech director and theater director. Kappeler served as the latter for 16 years (1997 to 2013), directing 16 mainstage plays and serving as assistant director of 13. Much like Kappeler’s teaching role has since 1997, his speech director duties have been ongoing since 2002.
Currently in his second term, Kappeler is a prominent member of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) Speech Advisory Committee. In that role, he is one of 10 members who advises the MSHSAA Board on rules revisions and other speech-related issues. Despite no formal speech or theater education, Kappeler’s informal training via observation has grown Pacific’s speech team from four members in 2002 to one of the state’s top programs. Since 2008, Pacific has won every Four Rivers Conference speech meet, and had 24 state finalists and three state champions during Kappeler’s tenure.
Boasting 28 years of experience, Kappeler’s contributions to education have been recognized. In 2014, he was Missouri’s South Central District Speech Director of the Year. From 2017 to 2018, he earned four honors, including the 2017 Missouri South Central Region Teacher of the Year award and being named a Missouri Teacher of the Year finalist in 2018.
Teresa Lawler is a teacher in the Ankeny (Iowa) School District, where she contributes her knowledge of English, composition and more to the students of Ankeny High School and Ankeny Centennial High School. Since 1984, she’s served as a teacher, coach and director in several roles within the interscholastic setting. Among them are drama director, student council advisor and speech coach.
Lawler’s work as a speech coach with the Iowa High School Speech Association includes guiding students as an individual coach since 1994 and with large groups since 1988-89. Her collaboration with students in writing original work and creating meaningful performances has resulted in 170 individuals and 37 groups receiving all-state speech recognition. Lawler has also judged contests since 1984, and reestablished Lincoln-Douglas and Student Congress debate in 1999 after its 20-year absence.
The Iowa Governor’s Scholar Program tabbed Lawler as its Most Influential Teacher in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2017. She was also named the Iowa Student Council Advisor of the Year in 2002.
A teacher of history and director of speech and debate, Darin Maier has served St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Ridgeland, Mississippi, for 21 years. While his roles have varied in that time, his passion for policy debate has aided him as the school’s director of speech and debate since 2010.
Maier joined St. Andrew’s in 2000 as the associate director of speech and debate, as well as beginning his first stint as a history teacher. He previously was a social studies teacher and debate coach at Stratford Academy in Macon, Georgia, from 1993-97. In 2005, he was promoted to St. Andrew’s associate head of the middle school. The new role for Maier coincided with his duties as associate director of speech and debate, which he fulfilled until he assumed his role as director of speech and debate.
The U.S. Presidential Scholars Program tabbed Maier in 2010 as a Distinguished Teacher. Among his speech and debate honors is his selection as an Outstanding Speech/Debate/Theatre Educator for the 2011-12 academic year by the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) and NFHS Section 3. Maier has also authored several NFHS High School Debate Topic reports, including the winning topic for 2013-14 on Latin America.
David Montera has been the speech and debate coach at Centennial High School in Pueblo, Colorado since 1983, after beginning his career in education at Rocky Ford High School in Rocky Ford, Colorado, in 1981. Although officially retired from public school teaching after 38½ years, Montera still coaches speech and debate at Centennial while teaching at St. Therese Catholic Middle School in Pueblo.
Montera’s teams at Centennial have enjoyed great success, including winning the Colorado Grande District Trophy three times and the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) district chapter award three times.
Montera is a Six Diamond coach with the NSDA. He was named coach of the year in 2019-20 by the Colorado Grande District and he received the 2019 Sharon Wilch Lifetime Achievement Award from the Colorado High School Activities Association.
Julie Rine, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Missouri Southern State University in 2004, is in her 16th year in education. She is currently serving as drama and forensics teacher at Grimsley Junior High School in Centerton, Arkansas. After moving to Arkansas in 2010, Rine earned two master’s degrees – one in special education and another in educational leadership and has taught both special education and speech/theatre communication classes.
Among her awards, Rine was chosen the 2018 Arkansas National Speech and Debate Association District Coach of the Year and the 2020 Arkansas Communication and Theatre Arts Association Teacher of the Year.
An English teacher for 27 years, Rumsey started the speech and debate program at Arizona College Prep High School in Chandler, Arizona, five years ago and has generated more interest every year. After starting with eight people five years, the ACP speech and debate team is now composed of 63 students only five years later.
Rumsey’s speech and debate teams have enjoyed good success in Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) competition as well. Arizona College Prep was the AIA Division II runner-up in state speech and debate in 2018 and then was AIA Division II state champion in 2019.
Rumsey, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Point Loma Nazarene University and his master’s from Northern Arizona University, has also coached basketball at Arizona College Prep the past 22 years.
Michael Villacrusis wears many hats as a teacher and coach at Turner Ashby High School in Bridgewater, Virginia. For his entire Turner Ashby tenure, Villacrusis – an educator of 32 years -- has went above and beyond just his role as an English teacher. He has taught debate since he arrived at the school in 2007. In 2010, Villacrusis took over as coach of the forensics team and then as the debate coach in 2016.
Involved in many areas, Villacrusis’ contributions are abundant. As a coach, he has helped bring Virginia High School League (VHSL) district, regional and super regional tournaments for debate and forensics to Turner Ashby. Villacrusis has also since started an annual academic team banquet, in addition to launching the Turner Ashby Novice Forensics Tournaments and Forensics Festival. Since 2012, he has acted as coach and school tournament director for the English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition.
Villacrusis started his career in 1988 at Delaware Valley High School in Milford, Pennsylvania. While he boasts many personal achievements, including organizing the school’s first Model UN team, his 13-year run at Turner Ashby has provided him many milestones. In 2012, he was named Turner Ashby’s Teacher of the Year on top of winning his first of two (2019) AP Boxley McDonald’s Student & Teacher Achievement Awards. The year 2019 also resulted in his selection as the Robert B. & Gladys Hopkins Strickler Honored Teacher of the Year. To date, Villacrusis also remains a member of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s education roundtable.