Perkins caps speech team career with sixth place in state

To cap off the Cary Grove speech team’s 2023 season, senior captain Christine Perkins qualified for the state tournament in both radio speaking and prose reading. Perkins returned home with a sixth-place medal in prose reading and as a member of the speech team’s 2,000 point club. She earned 2,042 points throughout her career, making her the second-highest scorer in Cary-Grove history.

Despite Perkins’s commendable career, it was uncertain whether she would break into state finals. She had no doubt it was possible- but would it really happen? When Perkins first saw the news, she was in a state of “denial,” sitting alongside junior teammate Alexa Snyder and fellow senior captain Logan West.

“It was Logan, and Alexa, and then me, and in that order, it was nihilism, neutralism and optimism,” Perkins said.

Perkins’s pre-performance experience was one of disbelief, rush, but above all, exhilaration. Her coaches disseminated the actual results, acting as though no team members had broken into finals. So, seeing her own name on the final round poster was all the more shocking.

“We were just screaming bloody murder and I was like, ‘This is the best day of my life!’” she said. “I went in with the mindset of ‘I’m not going home without a medal, so try and stop me.’”

After digesting the newfound information, her first challenge was being on time for the very last round of her very last season. With a half-empty water bottle and two minutes to spare, she made it to the second floor of the Peoria Civic Center. 

Perkins was to be the final speaker of her round, which, for most, would be a daunting circumstance since they have to watch their entire competition perform before them. Fortunately for her, she thrives in these conditions and was “happy to be going last.”

She laughed at the contrast of the situation: every member of Cary-Grove’s speech regional team sat in the front row of the prose reading room, while she sat opposite them, next to a “prose friend” she would later compete against.

“I also always kind of stand behind the fact that […] I always did better after watching really good pieces, so I was pretty happy that I got to watch all of the other really, really good [pieces],” Perkins said. 

She was able to find inspiration in the quality of her competitors’ performances, which translated over to her own performance and mindset. At the succeeding awards ceremony, Perkins shared the stage with six other competitors who broke into finals in prose reading. 

“It didn’t seem like as many people as you’d think […] I got up and I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a casual few hundred people,” she joked. They stood in anxious anticipation as the emcee announced the finalists’ places in descending order. Perkins was announced as the sixth-place winner of prose reading, an incredible accomplishment for any competitor. 

“I was definitely happy not to get last. I had an actual number and that’s nice,” she said. “I went in senior year like, ‘Yeah, I’m coming home with a medal.”

As a freshman, Perkins had her “ups and downs” in the performing arts department. She described them as two different sides of her life.

“They’ve both taken different importances at different times, but I think at the beginning and at the end was when I was like ‘Oh, no, speech is more important.’”

Both passions proved to be major parts of her high school experience, but the week before state, Perkins had to prioritize her speech performance over her performance in Cary-Grove’s musical Mean Girls. Consequently, she was able to have a full-circle moment.

“Freshman year I broke at the very first tournament I ever went to, and I broke at the very last tournament I ever went to,” she recalled.

At her first tournament, she won the novice finals for radio speaking and placed fourth in the top finals for informative speaking. While she says that no speech team member ever has a “ridiculously successful freshman year,” it was clear from the start that Perkins was a promising new talent. Even in her freshman year, she predicted she would eventually break into state finals.

Her teammates shared that same belief, and surrounded her with love, excitement, and encouragement.

“Speech has always been such a positive environment,” she said. “Everyone always treated me like I was going to go places, and so I want to treat everyone else like they’re going to go places, because I think that’s how it happens.”

Just a year later at that very same tournament, Perkins placed fifth in oratorical declamation, second in radio speaking, and first in dramatic interpretation, an incredible achievement for a sophomore entered in three events.

She says her speech experience has “been so much more than four years” because of her older sister’s involvement in the program. It was because of her sister, who introduced her to the program early on, that Perkins joined the speech team. They both knew she would stick with speech for a long time. The young Perkins was told, “This is going to be what you do,” and for the next six years, those words held true.

Unsurprisingly, radio speaking was the event Perkins was always expected to excel at. In seventh grade, her older sister told the speech coaches that Perkins would be their “radio star,” not their “prose star.” While Perkins did more than excel in all of her events, prose reading was ironically what brought her a state tournament medal.

 “It was supposed to be radio the whole time. In the end it was prose that just made me happier,” she said.

The storytelling nature of prose reading allowed Perkins to tap into her hard-earned talent for theatre performance. Growing up, Perkins was surrounded by the performing arts and naturally fell in love with it. While she was always involved in plays and musicals at Cary-Grove, speech provided her with a new, creative, and individualistic passion and style of expression. 

“Speech as a whole was performance. But not performance for other people, it was performance that I did for myself. [Theatre] is the performance that I do for little me, and speech was the performance that I did for myself in the moment that made me happy.”

Devastatingly, Perkins is unable to continue her speech career in college. She will attend the University of Iowa, a school that does not have a speech team. Nonetheless, Perkins acknowledges the important role that the speech team has played in her life, and that the passion for speaking that came with it will always remain with her.

In college, she hopes to join a performance group like a cappella, take any speech classes she is offered, and “perform any way [she] can.” Additionally, she will consider returning to Cary-Grove to coach, judge, or advise future speech teams with the insight, understanding, and hope she has gained. 

Each of her speech coaches have taught her something unique and are greatly responsible for Perkins’s remarkable talent and dedication. Decorated teacher and speech coach Mrs. Stephanie Sukow said, “[The state tournament is] just one weekend. I always like to say that we never know what to expect.”

Mrs. Sukow reminds her students that it is perfectly acceptable if no one breaks into state finals. However, she explained, if someone does, the excitement is always a shared feeling amongst the team.

“It’s always about passing on a legacy to the next group, and so, instilling that in the upperclassmen is really powerful. But, getting the underclassmen really excited for the next year is great, too, because that momentum carries through,” Mrs. Sukow said.

When Perkins broke into state finals, the team’s experience was exactly that- a shared, overwhelming excitement for the possibility of the future. That feeling of hopefulness in the face of infinite uncertainty is one the speech team has not been able to share in a while, since the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on normal speech activities for a few seasons.

Mrs. Sukow said that with the end of coronavirus-related setbacks came a new season filled with new teammates, new talents, and “new energy.”

“This year felt…normal. Normal-ish. As normal as it’s felt in a while,” Mrs. Sukow reflected.

However, one consistent occurrence she made note of was Cary-Grove’s Performance in the Round’s appearance at state for the past nine years. She credits this to the fact that the team “works hard” and “knows how to get to that point.” Even during the pandemic, the Cary-Grove team went to state for both Performance in the Round and several individual events. According to Mrs. Sukow, the team usually qualifies three to seven individual events.

Most recently, Perkins performed at state alongside senior Chris Smith in impromptu speaking, Logan West in poetry reading, and sophomore Leo Petropoulos in extemporaneous speaking. 

“What was unique in Leo’s case was watching him explode in his talent in the end, and to see a lot of things click for him and for all of our students,” Mrs. Sukow said.

Witnessing that growth in all team members is what makes coaching speech so special for her. The speech season at Cary-Grove is 204 days long, and between coaching individuals one at a time, planning for practices and tournaments, coordinating group performances, and preparing for future seasons, Mrs. Sukow takes on a lot as a coach. She must dedicate her attention to anywhere from 35 to 40 individuals, coaching one student at a time.

Contrary to the regular season, she said that “a really rewarding part of the state series is narrowing in on just a few kids.”

Because of the limited performers in the state series, Sukow is allowed to devote more of her time to each student, which is something she values greatly. She pointed out that the shift between performing in small classrooms with minimal audiences to speaking in large meeting spaces with a hundred live audience members is drastic for students, but the coaches are able to prepare them for the intimidating environment. In fact, she noted that many of the individual performers did their best performances in that challenging space, a feat that instilled a lot of pride in both Mrs. Sukow and her students. 

At state tournaments, Mrs. Sukow’s pride for her seniors is especially strong. Not just because of their accomplishments, but because of the immense growth she witnesses as each year passes. She says that many seniors who break at state for their individual events were part of performance in the round, a group event, years prior.

She says it’s “neat” to watch those students start in a group event and grow into their individual events. With so many students on the team, sometimes watching can be a challenge.

At state, Sukow literally ran from the furthest end of the Peoria Civic Center to the other in order to see both West’s and Perkins’s performances. Her dedication and attitude is what has influenced her students’ personalities, perspectives, and attitudes so profoundly. 

 Running to Perkins’s performance, she passed many of her speech coach friends from opposing teams. She shared an understanding laugh with these friends, many of whom judged Mrs. Sukow’s performances when she was a high-school speech competitor.

Some of these friends included Prairie Ridge’s and Crystal Lake South’s speech coaches, whose two competitors joined Cary-Grove at state. What is so different between sports and the speech team, she believes, is that in speech, up to three competitors in each event are sent from every sectional tournament. Because of this, she says, “You can have three winners.” So, when Cary-Grove’s Leo Petropoulos and Crystal Lake South’s Megan Norten both qualified for the state tournament in extemporaneous speaking, Mrs. Sukow was able to support both competitors.

“In the speech community, everyone truly cheers for everyone else. Obviously, in the end, you want your [team] to go to state, but we also celebrate each other’s victories. Communication is all about making those connections with people, and I think that’s really special in the speech world,” Mrs. Sukow said.

Perkins, like many of Mrs. Sukow’s students, grew immensely in the four years she spent under her coach’s guidance. With her sophistication and poise, she will continue to remember the iconic proverb Mrs. Sukow shares: “Winners get trophies, champions change lives.”