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A figure of speech — Flathead High School teacher named Speech Coach of the Year

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | April 8, 2024 12:00 AM

To say it’s been a whirlwind year for Flathead High School speech and debate head coach and English teacher Shannon O’Donnell is an understatement.

O’Donnell still seemed to be on cloud nine during an interview in her classroom Tuesday — coming down from what she describes as a “Cinderella win” at the Class AA State Tournament in January. 

In March, her peers selected her for the AA Steve Reardon Speech Coach of the Year award at the Montana Forensic Educators Association and Montana High School Association Coaches Conference. O’Donnell is the second coach in Montana to win the award three times. Fellow coach, Susan Dykhuizen, was also nominated for the award. 

Winning Speech Coach of the Year was unexpected O’Donnell said — and a rare moment the speech coach was at a loss for words. 

“I have no idea what to say because I didn’t prepare anything,” O’Donnell said with a smile.

The state title and award punctuate the toughest year of her 20-year career.

“This was the hardest season of my coaching career, truly it really was, in so, so many ways,” she said.

The season began with a mostly new coaching staff, a fraction of the usual veteran competitors, and a Broadway school musical that claimed many competitors for the first seven weeks of the speech and debate season. 

“I started with shameless recruiting,” O’Donnell said.

While the team was assembled, rebuilding a competitive team was another matter. 

There were periods when the coaching responsibilities coupled with personal matters bore down on her, leaving her feeling beaten down. When it became overwhelming, she thought about resigning from coaching. Leaving the team, and a program she poured more than 14 years into, was a thought she couldn’t bear.

“It always comes down to the kids. My freshman and my first-years — when you get a new bunch like that then they put that time in and they put that work in and they want it …” she said, pausing to remove her glasses to wipe her eyes. “It’s like, yes, this is why we coach.” 

She took the season week by week, tournament by tournament, focused on getting the freshman “up and running.”

“Everything should have been totally against us this year. We should not have won. But we did because of the kids. And that’s why we do it,” she said, her voice filled with pride.

TO PUT it in perspective, the 2024 state champion team had 15 first-year competitors, a first in her coaching career, and 17 seniors. She said all 15 earned varsity letters. In a typical season, it’s around three. 

“I cannot stress the mind-blowing craziness of that. How abnormal that is. That doesn’t happen if we have a full team. That’s how much rebuilding we were doing,” O’Donnell marveled. 

“They had a really powerful work ethic,” she noted, with the top competitors putting in the hours above and beyond regular practices.

The 2024 team had a level of dogged tenacity and spirit she hadn’t seen since 2015. That was the year Flathead went into the state tournament as the underdog team and came out as champions.

“We hadn’t won a single tournament. No one saw us coming. It was our centennial and they wanted to win so badly. I’ve never seen a team want to win like that. They were getting in front of teachers begging to perform [speeches] in the middle of class. And we won by the biggest margin in the history of the state. 

“I told the kids, it’s possible here. We’ve done it before,” she said.

In a season building from the ground up, at the beginning, she predicted the team would place third at minimum, or second “if the stars aligned,” against heavyweight Bozeman and crosstown rival, Glacier.

“I was terrified that this might be a year we came home with no hardware and I don’t even know when the last time Flathead came home without first, second, or third,” she said.

But O’Donnell doesn’t coach based on predictions.

“I tell them it's on you. How much do you want it? How hard are you willing to work? Anything is possible if you work hard enough for it. If you want it enough. If you believe in it hard enough. Anything is possible,” she said

For an extra shot of motivation, O’Donnell wanted a pep talk the team wouldn’t forget and bought a Cameo from actor — and the 1998 national champion in Dramatic Interpretation — Michael Urie, who played Marc St. James in the ABC show “Ugly Betty.”

It’s a pep talk the team hasn’t forgotten. Outside of saying “FFS” instead of “FHS,” Urie gave them memorable words of encouragement and some advice from his competition days.

“When I was in speech and debate back in the 1990s, I always used to say, do it to do it again. Don't do it to win. Do it to do it again. Every chance you have to perform is a gift. And if you advance to the next level, that just means you get to do it one more time. And it's not about winning. Although winning is nice. Winning is nice. Do it to do it again was always my mantra, but also stick together,” he said.

O’Donnell noted that “stick together” was the theme this season based on the book of the same title by Jon Gordon. She said the book, given to staff by Flathead Assistant Principal Bryce Wilson, is about building a stronger team, which resonated with her at the start of the season.

“We really talk about family a lot and how we take care of each other and they really did a nice job this year of coming together as a family,” O’Donnell said — assistant coaches looking after the kids, team captains looking after their teammates and veteran competitors looking after newcomers on their squads. 

This frees up O’Donnell who is one of the longtime coaches often called upon to tabulate scores at tournaments, which is what she was doing at state. Despite being at the epicenter of results, O’Donnell was unaware the points were racking up for Flathead as individual scores came in.

“Josh Munro from Glacier is a math guy and he figured it out way ahead of anybody and came over and congratulated me,” she said.

O’Donnell said she and another coach turned around, puzzled. 

“We’re like what are you talking about?” she said.

The disbelief transformed into elation.

“It was awesome,” she said, showing one of her favorite photos from the night that captured students’ reactions to winning.

O’DONNELL STARTED at Flathead as an assistant coach in 2000 under Greg Adkins, current Glacier High School head speech and debate coach. After three years, she took a break to raise children, returning to coaching in 2012-13. This season marked her 14th year as head coach.

Prior to Flathead, she spent six years as the head speech and debate coach at Butte High School. 

Coaching at Butte was her first experience in speech and debate. It came with the teaching job and as a first-year teacher, O’Donnell wasn’t about to turn it down.

O’Donnell said she always wanted to be an educator and role model like the teachers she had growing up.

“We moved a lot when I was a kid. There’s only a couple times in my life I got to go to the same school more than two years in a row and so I really hesitated to get close to the kids,” O’Donnell said. “I had a very soap opera childhood and teachers were always my rocks. That was the most stability I felt like I had growing up. Teachers were my parent figures and my safe space. So, that’s what I always wanted to be.”

So she took on navigating the complex path of applying for and attending college as a first-generation student. That path would lead to a teaching career that has, so far, spanned 30 years.

Coaching has become an avenue to work with students beyond a semester. 

“I get that long-term relationship with them that you don't always get just as a teacher. The whole reason we're doing this is for the kids,” she said.

O’Donnell plans to coach until she decides to retire from teaching.

“We develop good writers, good thinkers, negotiators, performers, debaters and communicators. It totally prepares kids for life more than any other activity,” she said.

It’s an activity that draws students from different backgrounds and interests from athletes to artists and everything in between. And it’s a no-cut activity, meaning everyone who wants to be on the team can participate.

“We change lives. I really believe that,” O’Donnell said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.