CHEROKEE, Iowa | I land at Washington High School in Cherokee on Tuesday afternoon to catch large-group speech all-staters in action.

The program of Coach Jaylene De Vos has two groups performing as the Iowa High School Speech Association hosts the 2016 Iowa All-State Large Group Speech Festival on Saturday at the Iowa State Center in Ames. The day is reserved for performances by the best of the best in the large-group season.

Washington High has a pair of all-state entries: TV News and Group Improvisation. The high school also has a pair of entries chosen as non-performing all-state entries: Ensemble Acting and Readers Theater.

All four groups strut their stuff on Tuesday, to a mix of laughs and shrieks from students and teachers. The lone "fresh" performance is done by four young men in the Group Improvisation category. Braden Clyde, Caleb Claycamp, Kyle Johnson and Ben Lingenfelter select a random situation, drawn from a hat, and put their heads together for two minutes in an effort to create a five-minute sketch.

It's the high school version of "Whose Line Is It," the hilarious TV show.

"That's one of my favorite shows," says Claycamp, who, like Clyde, is a two-time Group Improv all-stater.

This foursome earned an all-state nod by "knocking 'em dead" in a sketch at the State Large Group Speech Festival in Le Mars, Iowa, on Feb. 6. The group's situation that day involved a newbie reporting on his first day of work at a fast food restaurant. They had to showcase the situation, develop characters and come to a resolution, all of it with a grand total of 120 seconds of preparation.

Group Improvisation is not for the timid. This is thinking-on-your-feet, on steroids.

"Braden (Clyde) was our idiot," Claycamp explains with a smirk. "I was trying to train him how to do french fries and take orders at the drive-up window."

Clyde couldn't figure out the "go" buttons for each task. He had the directions written on his hand, which smeared as he sweat. He stumbled repeatedly as laughter grew, filling a packed performance area at Le Mars Community High School.

Johnson and Lingenfelter paraded through as three different sets of customers. The piece reached its conclusion as Clyde, the foil, showed an immediate and uncanny mastery of the cash register, finally finding his place of expertise while dispensing change for a $100 bill in the correct number of nickles, dimes and pennies.

"I knew after their performance that they had a chance to advance to all-state," says James DeVos, an assistant speech coach for his wife, Jaylene. "It was a solid scene and a good resolution."

Too many Group Improvisation sketches dissipate in the closing minute. Those that reach a tidy and humorous conclusion tend to end their season on the all-state stage, competing for a banner that goes to the very best performance in each category at the all-state festival.

Craig Ihnen, executive director of the Iowa High School Speech Association, notes that of 800 Group Improvisation teams that started the speech season, 24 perform on Saturday at the all-state event. One of those 24 will be deemed best of the best.

Whether this foursome, or the TV News team at Washington High, wins a banner is a bit immaterial. The important thing is that a group of young people continues to learn how to think, create, communicate and entertain while working as a team.

The activity represents a wonderful introduction to Iowa high school extracurricular options for Lingenfelter, a junior who moved to Cherokee in July as his mother, Kimberly Lingenfelter, started work as the new superintendent of schools. The family relocated from Neligh, Nebraska, where Ben played sports, but didn't participate in drama.

"I'd never been in a play, other than something like one at an elementary school Christmas program," he says.

Claycamp and Clyde, teammates of Lingenfelter on last fall's successful Braves football team, recruited him -- or, more or less TOLD him -- he would join them and Johnson, a cross country runner, on their Group Improvisation unit.

I smile as they tell me about peer recruitment, and how a pair of beefy football players put pressure on the newest kid in school to join them in what might be the most intimidating speech category of all.

It helped make the newest Cherokee Brave an all-stater. And, who knows, by late Saturday, he might also be part of a state champion quartet.



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