Going in to the National Speech Tournament last month in Birmingham, Alabama, Molly McDermott and Ben Marshall entered as the two-time Illinois state champions in their event and having placed third overall at nationals last year.
Still, they took the stage in front of a packed, standing-room-only crowd in an auditorium that sat more than 3,000 people, and with cameras zooming in to film their performance for a large live stream audience.
Pressure? What pressure?
These teens nailed it, and with their fourth-place finish led their team from Prospect High School to designation as a School of Excellence, which signifies it as one of the top 20 schools in the nation for speech.
In the duo interpretation event, Marshall and McDermott performed a powerful scene from a book by Samantha Powell called "The Story of Us." In the 10-minute piece, the audience learns that they are dating and that McDermott is preparing to make a speech.
What the audience learns over the next few minutes is that McDermott is preparing to address her high school community after a school shooting, during which Marshall was killed shielding another student and ultimately ending the rampage.
"I just want to be able to feel your touch one last time," McDermott says to Marshall, during a pivotal moment in the piece.
Their performance literally took the audience from laughing to crying and ultimately cheering as they left the stage. It's a moment both teens will cherish as Marshall prepares to attend Western Michigan University in the fall and major in theater, while McDermott prepares for her senior year.
"I think we have really good chemistry," McDermott says, "and are able to create these characters that are lovable for the audience -- and real."
Marshall, who currently is in rehearsals for "The Wedding Singer," opening next week at Forest View Educational Center, agrees.
"We had so many people come up to us afterward and tell us how much they identified with the two people in the scene," he says. "It makes us realize just how much our words can make an impact on other people. It gives a voice to how they're feeling."
The pair led a Prospect team filled with impressive finishes. They included Jimmy McDermott in original oratory and Abby Grott in dramatic interpretation, who both placed 13th, as well as Katherine Jordan and John Zach in duo interpretation, Rhegan Graham in informative speaking and Kamila Cwanek in oral interpretation. They all placed in the top 60 of their respective events, which each had more than 250 participants.
Prospect Associate Principal Scott McDermott is an assistant coach of the team. He believes in the value of speech team so much that he not only promotes his own children in the activity, but he has coached students for more than 20 years.
He says the value lies not in the competition or the medals, but in the ability to walk into any room and communicate and connect with people.
"Sadly, communication has eroded to a critical point," McDermott says. "People are more focused on their screens than the opportunity that lies in front of them with people. I can't think of a more important skill to focus on than communication.
"Learning the skill and art of communication unlocks doors that were previously nailed shut and allows people to realize possibilities they may have not previously considered," he adds.
"It allows each student to develop a new confidence in their ability to move people with their spoken words."