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Kids look to talk their way to title

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NORMAL - Melissa Clemmons knows how high heels affect society.n;She's not a fashion expert, but a new high school graduate who has done a lot of research on the topic.

Her ability to articulate what she has learned has qualified the former Normal Community West High School student for a national speech competition in Dallas starting Saturday, along with six other Normal and Heyworth students who will compete in the National Forensic League finals.

"It's an amazing talent to have," Clemmons said, noting the No. 1 fear in America is public speaking.

Competitors will speak to a variety of national judges against other top students with a variety of styles, said Connie Link, who with Tom Wells coaches speech and congressional debate teams at Heyworth Community High School.

Link is district chairwoman for the Greater Illinois District of the forensic league. Heyworth has sent as many as seven students to national competition; this year, the school is fielding five.

"I've never sent any freshmen before," said Link, who has three this year.

National competition does add a little pressure, said freshman Paige Prehoda, 15. "We really want to do well," she added.

Prehoda's category of extemporaneous speaking requires her to gather clippings of current events so she has reference material for a speech that has to be written in 20 minutes. At the event, she will draw topics and choose one among three possible questions on which to speak for seven minutes.

She became a Hurricane Katrina expert this year. But Prehoda, who also shows horses, says it is hard to keep current on news while preparing Illinois Painted Horse shows.

Even after they qualify for national competition, students continue to research and revise their topics. "To be in nationals, you gotta step it up," Clemmons said.

Tony Melchiorri, 17, going into his senior year at University High School in Normal, is deep into research for his congressional debate. He enjoys science-related topics and looks forward to talking about avian flu or stem cell research.

He got hooked on speaking in seventh grade, when he ran for student president. "I didn't win, but lots of people complimented me on my speech," he said.

As a high school freshman, he heard about speech and debate team. "My parents told me it would give me someone to argue with other than them," he joked.

This is Melchiorri's second national competition. He is coached by Mark Adams at University High School.

Students sandwich speech preparation among other interests. Melchiorri also plays in the jazz and marching bands and works on his car.

Clemmons works on Tai kwon do belts and is active in orchestra.

"She's one of the most dedicated, hardworking kids I've worked with," said Ellie Marvin, her NCWHS speech coach.

Students prepare for more than one speech at national competition so when they are eliminated in one category, they can participate in a supplemental tournament in another category. Later consolation rounds include impromptu speeches.

"I don't think speech competitors get nearly the recognition they deserve," said Melissa's father, Richard Clemmons. "I think Missy and her friends put a huge amount of effort into what they do."

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