Denfeld News

June 29, 2009
Duluth News Tribune

Denfeld teens talk the talk all the way to national competition
By Fatima Jawaid

Two towering trophies sit on the Johnsons’ kitchen table, the sun glinting off the silvery smiles of the beaming man and woman perched on top of it: “2009 NFL nationals: Third Place,” they declare.

The trophies’ owners, Denfeld seniors Hanna Durfee and Brian Johnson, stand over them wearing similar expressions.

After months of preparation and feverishly raising $8,000 to attend the National Forensic League’s 2009 Speech Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., the duo competed last week in four to five rounds a day for five days in at least 100-degree heat.

But all the hard work paid off. In the end, Johnson and Durfee had beaten more than 220 of the nation’s top teams to take third place.

Coach Jill Lofald said that in her 24 years as a speech coach, she has never seen any team from Duluth make it that far. Other Duluth coaches confirmed her statement.

“It’s like a Cinderella story,” Lofald said. “We’ve never been that involved with these traveling competitions like some of the other schools. All of these other teams have bigger programs, chances to have one-on-one time with coaches — it’s just amazing that this little school from Duluth comes in and does so well.”

“I’m going to name this one Anna and this one August,” Durfee said as she pointed to her trophies.

The names aren’t randomly chosen — they’re a tribute to the play, “Anna and August” by Don Zolidis, that the teens credit with helping them place in the national tournament. The story follows unlikely childhood friends who end up going to high school prom together.

Durfee and Johnson performed their 10-minute portion of the play in 13 rounds for the “duo interpretation” portion of the tournament. They won a “’Bama bowl” trophy for besting five competitors in the final round, and placed third overall for total tournament points.

“When they announced our names, I looked at Hanna and my mouth just dropped open. I couldn’t believe it,” Johnson said. “Just to be in the top six of the very best of the nation is an honor.”

In their three years on the Duluth speech team, Durfee and Johnson had never been in a tournament as big as the NFL nationals. The largest crowd either had performed for was 200 people, Lofald said. At the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center, there were more than 3,500 people in attendance.

“My legs were Jell-o the entire time,” Durfee said. “But I’m an adrenaline junkie, so I loved getting up there in front of everyone. And the audience reaction, it was just amazing. We didn’t expect that much feedback. There were parts in our skit that we had to stop and wait for the audience to stop laughing so we could finish.”

One of the best parts of their final performance, Johnson added, was looking out into the audience and seeing an older man laughing so hard he had to take off his glasses and wipe his tears away.

In addition to the trophies, both received $500 scholarships and automatically qualified for next year’s tournament, which they will start preparing for as early as August.

“This has been an unforgettable experience,” Johnson said. “Even if we never get there again — we’re going to enjoy it as long as we can.”

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