For 24 years, Pam Wycoff has managed nearly every detail of the speech program at Apple Valley High School.
Before the season’s first meet, she inspects the outfit each student will wear, making jewelry and suit suggestions as needed.
To boost confidence before a national competition, she creates individual collages with pictures representing the topics of her students’ speeches.
Wycoff’s meticulous methods have worked well — so well, in fact, that the program has produced 71 state champions during her tenure. The school has 79 state champions overall and 334 state tournament medals, both Minnesota records. Under Wycoff, the team has produced more than 100 finalists at the two national forensic tournaments.
At the end of the year, Wycoff will retire as the director of the speech and debate program and head speech coach. It will be hard to imagine the program without her.
“Ever since she came in 1989, she’s been the heart and soul of everything that’s done here,” said Joe Wycoff, arts and activities director at Apple Valley and a speech coach. “The legacy of speech and debate at Apple Valley is the legacy of Pam Wycoff.”
Joe happens to be Pam’s husband — and Pam considers him the co-head coach. The two bring two complementary philosophies to coaching, according to students.
“Ms. Wycoff is the head and Mr. Wycoff is the heart” of the program, said Nader Helmy, a senior and speech team co-captain who’s been a national champion twice.
“They each have their strengths,” said Scott Voss, who was coached by Pam as a teen and came to work for the Apple Valley schools to coach with her. “Joe is more of the visionary — stay focused, know your mission. Pam is more about the management side. From her the lessons are, ‘Good enough is never enough.’ ”
What they share is a constant commitment to high standards, Voss said.
“I think as a program, I’ve never hesitated to have students compete with people who are excellent. I think that’s part of it,” Pam Wycoff said. “And people are surprised to hear this, but I really don’t focus on winning. I really focus on achieving excellence itself.”
If there’s a single reason the team typically does well, “It’s that we outwork people,” Joe Wycoff said. Yet, “We always tell the kids that we take competition very seriously, but that you don’t live and die by a speech score.”
Though speech season doesn’t officially start until January, for many it’s a year-round activity. After tryouts in October, kids often stay late and come in on weekends to practice, videotaping speeches and coaching one another, Joe said.
Voss said the seven other Apple Valley speech coaches — that doesn’t include the many other alumni who occasionally help coach — recently estimated they put in about 255 hours coaching annually.
For Pam, who by day directs the mentorship program at Apple Valley, a 70-hour workweek is “not unheard of,” Voss said.
It pays off for many of the 65 students on the team. In addition to weekly and section meets and the state tournament, held earlier this weekend, many students travel to two out-of-state invitational tournaments annually. And some qualify for the two big national tournaments, the National Forensic League’s in June and the National Catholic Forensic League’s in late May.
“Minnesota in general is relatively new to the national scene, since the ’90s,” said Joni Anker, head speech coach at Eagan High School and former Apple Valley head coach. “And what Pam has really done is taken the program to the national level.”
Several schools in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district have very competitive programs. Eagan High School ranks second in total number of state speech champions, with 58. Eastview High School has also become a strong contender in recent years.
Because the three schools compete in the same section, they all push each other to become better, Joe said.
“Some people have to travel to other states to get to that level of competition,” Pam Wycoff said. “I think it’s a tremendous challenge just to make it out [of this section].”
Anker and Pam Wycoff credit the district for its general support of the arts and of the schools’ speech programs.
Near the office at Apple Valley, the program’s strength is marked by a Wall of Fame, featuring dozens of portraits of the school’s speech champs. And each year, speech and debate students pose for full-color posters, “just like the athletic teams,” Joe Wycoff said.
Pam Wycoff says she’ll teach at Apple Valley for a few more years. Her husband, though, will retire from both education and speech this year.
“We thought we’d go out as a team,” Pam Wycoff said.
And though speech will be different next year, the fact that four current coaches will step into the Wycoffs’ shoes will provide continuity, Voss said.
“I’m nervous that things will change,” said Morgan Potter, a senior and speech team co-captain, “but with Ms. Wycoff’s attention to detail, I’m sure there won’t be a single category that won’t have a great coach.”