Success Gives Forensics Team Something to Talk About

Posted: April 24, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Forensics Team discussion
Forensics Team director Peter Pober, sitting on floor, has been thrilled with the success of his young orators. “I can’t wait to see what the team does next year.”

By Tara Laskowski

A few days before a tournament, S.R. Hilliard spends some quality time with a wall. Professors who know him might walk through Thompson Hall and see him talking to himself in the hallway, but they wouldn’t worry about him. In fact, they might encourage it.

That’s because Hilliard, a freshman communication major, is a member of the Forensics Team. Though the name might have you thinking of the TV show “CSI” and a bunch of scientists digging around in old bones to find a murderer, the Forensics Team looks for evidence of a different kind. And while there is a certain science to team members’ work, their skills are more along the lines of performance, communication and style.

Forensics is a sexy form of public speaking – speeches that take forms such as poetry interpretation on punk music lyrics, after-dinner speaking on hate or communication analysis on the urban dictionary.

The Forensics Team at Mason is the university’s most successful academic team. Since it was founded in 1971, the team has won more than 14,000 trophies and is now ranked eighth in the country.

In individual competition at the American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament at the University of Florida earlier this month, freshman Sophia Chumpitaz earned fourth place in Communication Analysis and freshman Jeff Moscaritolo finished in sixth place in Oral Interpretation.

What is stunning about those rankings, says director Peter Pober, is that Mason’s team is the youngest in the country, with seven freshmen, six sophomores, one junior and three seniors.

“I would have other coaches come up to me to congratulate me on our two finalists. I would say, ‘Thank you. We are very excited that our freshmen did so well.’ And the response was always, ‘Your what?’ People were shocked that our students were so young.”

Forensics team members practicing
Researching, writing, practicing and delivering speeches give Forensics Team members skills they can use in whatever career they choose.

For the students, being on the team helps boost their confidence and prepare them for future careers.

“The experience is almost surreal,” says Hilliard, who hopes to work in film and media after graduation and says his work with the team has taught him how to frame a story and tell it to a crowd. “If you know how to work an audience, it’s the best time of your life.”

Competing at Nationals

It was 30 minutes before the speech, and sophomore Elliott Kashner was still figuring out his words.

Kashner’s favorite category in tournaments – and the one he is best at – is extemporaneous speaking, or “extemp.” This is the category for the speakers with the steel nerves. This is the category where you never quite know what you’re going to get.

While the other speakers have their speeches ready to go, in extemp the judges give each of the contestants three questions on various current events 30 minutes before they’re due to speak. The contestants then choose one of those questions and prepare a speech on it. For the national tournament, Kashner had to speak on what the United States could do to promote alternative energy usage.

Nerves? Nah.

“Right before I’m about to do something, I’ll be nervous. But then the nervous energy becomes just energy,” Kashner says.

In another room at the national competition, Ron Staniec prepared to give his speech – a dedication to writer Hunter Thompson.

Staniec, a senior communication major from Poland who transferred from Seton Hall University just to be on Mason’s forensics team, researched and worked on his speech for months. From Thompson’s books, letters and papers, as well as newspaper clippings and movies on the writer’s life, Staniec obtained background. He also studied recorded speeches and interviews to absorb Thompson’s speech patterns, movements and other behaviors.

“In parts of the speech, I actually become him, and I have to talk like him and act like him,” says Staniec. “I love to perform, show emotion, bring text alive to other people.”

For Staniec, this role will be valuable even after college forensics is over. With a goal of becoming an English teacher, Staniec has gained skills speaking in front of a group and interpreting text that will translate into the classroom.

His work paid off: Staniec finished in the top 20 in the nation for his Hunter Thompson presentation.

All in all, 30 percent of the Mason entries advanced to elimination rounds at the national tournament.

“That’s incredible for such a young team. I can’t wait to see what the team does next year,” says Pober.

The Secret to Their Success

The success of the team seems not to be due to the recruitment of excellent speakers, though one would think that would be an integral part. But what happens with the team dynamics seems to be something more magical, something that even the students or the coaches can’t quite put their finger on, but know is special.

“We are so close that Peter calls us weird,” says Chumpitaz. “Sometimes I myself can’t help but wonder why or how that all came to be since we are all so different, but forensics just seems to have that power.”

The time commitment for the team is significant – one three-hour meeting a week, plus individual meets on various speeches. Not to mention the research, research, research and rehearsal. The team also travels to many different tournaments throughout the academic year.

Members also give up their spring break every year, traveling as a group to the Shenandoah Valley where they hole up in a cabin with a great view and practice and work for the entire week.

“It’s intense,” says Hilliard. “I know people who have had to drop out because it takes too much time.”

Despite all the time spent together, team members still can’t seem to get enough of each other. Several of the students live together in apartments. While they were in Florida – the same week as the Mason men’s basketball Final Four game against the Gators – they bravely sat in a local sports bar and cheered Mason on. After the national tournament when their season ended, they could be found as a group watching movies or flying kites on the mall in Washington, D.C.

“I think we were having Forensics Team withdrawal,” says team member Becky Shuster.

But beyond the friendships, the students seem to understand that all their hard work is part of something larger.

“Every time you get up to perform, it is not just you. For the time you are up there, whether it’s five or 10 minutes, it is you, your teammates, coaches and the George Mason legacy,” says Chumpitaz.

Forensic team with trophies
The Forensics Team is Mason’s most successful academic team.
Creative Services photos

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