Good morning from Pierre! I'm in our glittering state capital to judge the South Dakota State Oral Interpretation Festival. I just heard Jennifer Jones on SDPB describe this weekend's event as the equivalent of the state championship/ She said students would be competing for the title of best oral interpreter in the state...

...to which I must say, "If only!" If you check the official schedule on the South Dakota High School Activities Association website, you will find the event is diligently labeled a "festival," not a "tournament" (like State Debate and State Basketball) or a "competition" (like State Dance and State Cheer). All of those other events crown "champions." When those shows are done, some diligent and lucky debaters and basketball players and dancers and cheerleaders walk away with trophies that say "First Place—State Champion."

The State Interp Festival crowns no champions. As I judge today and tomorrow, I will rank no students. I will rate students "Superior" or "Excellent". On the off chance that a student grabs his crotch and shouts "F--- you!", I may rate a student "Good". If at least two of us three judges on each panel give a student (or, in Duet and Readers Theater, a team of students) a "Superior" rating, that student receives a "Superior" award. Conceivably, if every student in a round hits his or her marks, every student may receive a Superior award.* In a "Festival," we celebrate all participants and their art.

A State Superior is a prestigious award. I pursued State Superiors avidly when I was a Madison Bulldog interper and one-act player. I drove my Montrose students enthusiastically to bring home such recognition (and they did so, 22 times in five years).

But we were never able to call those awards "State Championships." Even the team awards do not designate a champion school: Class AA schools that earn at least four individual Superiors and Class A and B schools that earn at least two individual Superiors receive "Team Excellence" plaques. As with individuals, every school participating in this august event could conceivably earn enough medals to be deemed a Team of Excellence. When my Montrose interpers earned Team Excellence awards, we counted individual Superiors and judge ballots to see if we really did outrank other schools. But even the year that Montrose was the only Class B school to win State Superiors in all seven events, we could not officially claim to be "State Champions."

I always chafed under this odd exception to the competitive spirit that guides the state events in nearly every other SDHSAA event. Many oral interp coaches have long resisted ranking students, worrying that competition might drive kids away from the event. I always found competitive spirit fired my interpers up and drove them to perform better. In Class B District contests and Class A Region contests, we do rank students, and we do name team champions. That competition and ranking don't stop kids from trying to qualify for State.

State Interp is a fine event, and I've always been thrilled to attend, twice as a competitor, five times as a coach, and now for my fourth time as a judge. I love getting to hear the best speakers in the state. I love getting to write critiques for these hard-working students to commend their efforts and offer advice for even better speech performance.

But as much fun as I will have today here at the Ramkota and tomorrow at Pierre Riggs High School, I'd have just that much more fun if I faced the awesome challenge of identifying the absolute best performances of the day. Naming state champions would make State Interp even more exciting for competitors and the public alike.

*Update 09:45 CST: Always pay attention at the judges' meeting! I just learned that the rules for rating students have changed! This year, we judges can give Superiors to no more than half of the entrants in any given event. If there are an odd number of entrants, we have to round our maximum down. The Displaced Plainsman, here at State Interp his capacity as speech coach, indicates disgruntlement among the coaching ranks is afoot!