When Michael Zehner was a freshman at Moffat County High School, he went to his first speech and debate event with the allure of pizza.
He stayed for the debate.
Zehner, 18, is now a senior, and after four years with the speech and debate team, he's glad he stayed. For a second straight year, Zehner, along with Curtis Lorio and Greg Blackstun, will travel to Birmingham, Ala., with teacher Eric Hansen, for the National Forensics League Tournament.
"It takes all year and all of your time to practice," said Zehner, adding he stopped competing in track to focus on the speech and debate team. "I don't regret it at all. With track, you put in little pieces of effort, but in (speech and debate) you put in more, and you get more."
Hansen said the students make sacrifices to be dedicated to the team.
"We start in October, and they have to be super dedicated to be successful," Hansen said. "It takes an enormous effort."
When Zehner competed in nationals last year, he was awarded the Mundt Medal for being one of the top 48 speakers at the event that features more than 500 schools from the United States.
"It's broadened my knowledge of a diverse range of subjects," Zehner said about being on the speech and debate team. "It's a test of knowledge, and I've enjoyed coming out on top."
The events in which Zehner competes mirror the process of passing legislation.
"They are like pieces of legislation, and we have to either argue for or against them," Zehner said.
"There are so many different areas, from aliens to energy policy. My favorite was human trafficking. It was something that really hit home, and we had to put together a policy, but it was definitely a touching subject."
Lorio, 17, joined the team last year when he moved to Craig from Fort Collins.
"A friend told me about it, and I said why not," he said. "I stayed and ended up liking it."
Now in his second year with the team, Lorio was ranked 11th in the state last year.
Lorio said he doesn't worry about performing.
"We practice all year long, but when you get up there, you just do it," said Lorio, who will perform "Salvation" by Langston Hughes at the national competition. "And when you're nervous, it's not because of the judges, it comes from the other competition."
Zehner said he battles his nerves with studying and preparation.
"It's a big mental thing," he said. "In years past, I would be scared, but now I know what I need to do to be mentally prepared. And when you're prepared, you are much more confident heading into the events, and nine times out of 10, you'll do well."
When Hansen took over the program five years ago, there were five kids in the program. Now, there are more than 40 students.
"I think a lot of them have seen the success we've had, and they want to be a part of it," Hansen said.
"It's good to see the improvement. We sent two kids (to nationals) last year, and three this year."
Zehner said he has seen the improvement during his time on the team.
"Now," Zehner said, "we're a team all the other schools on the Western Slope are scared to visit."
Lorio said he preferred the speech and debate team to other teams.
"We all work together," he said. "Unlike sports, we're not a team, we're a family."
The three students qualified for the national event Feb. 1. The tournament takes place from June 14 to 20.
Ben Bulkeley can be reached at 875-1795 or firstname.lastname@example.org