Sharing Their Story: What Valley Speech Teaches Us About Excellence and Grace

Update: Valley earned two Critic's Choice Awards at the 2020 IHSSA all-state festival on Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Iowa State Center in Ames. Learn more.

We all have a story.

We all have a passion.

We all have a purpose.

About 68 miles west of Valley High School’s Staplin Performing Arts Center lies the small Iowa town of Exira, popularly known for over 150 years’ worth of annual Fourth of July celebrations and the 440-some-acred Littlefield Recreation Area.

It’s also the hometown of Valley drama director and speech coach Stacy Hansen. Growing up a child of the farm, she participated in all sorts of activities "because that's what you do when you're at a small school.”

“I sat on the bench a lot for athletics. My choir teacher asked me to quit because I was too loud and off-tune,” Hansen recalled. “So, it really was like, OK, where can I find my voice?”

Welcome to the Iowa High School Speech Association — the place where Hansen discovered her calling, and the outlet where hundreds of Valley High School students have followed suit.

‘Once You're Thrown In, You're Part Of It’

Hansen has been Valley’s drama and speech director since 2001. She replaced retiring co-directors Jim and Cindy Lamson — both of whom Hansen says she absolutely admires and credits for instilling the love for the arts at the high school.

“When you're coming to a community, you bring with it what you know. You bring your story,” Hansen said. “I think in any school and with any director, you have to hone in on what your personal love is.”

That, for Hansen, of course, is IHSSA.

More than 25,000 high school students in the state participate in IHSSA, whether it be through individual or large group speech. Large group, which Hansen oversees at Valley, has categories like one-act play, reader's theater, group mime, and television news, to name a few. There are dozens of competitions as well, with district, state, and all-state showcases at the end of the season.

Back when Hansen was first hired, Valley’s IHSSA group started small, collecting just three all-state entries. Three years later, though, that total skyrocketed to 10.

And as the high school grew in size — by building structure and student population — so did Valley’s speech and drama programs.

“There's so much here, and all these kids just need a home. They just need an opportunity,” Hansen said. “And it's like, Wait a minute! They can do it in speech. They can do it in drama.”

But Hansen knew she couldn’t take this venture on all by herself.

She asked her husband for help. She contacted other relatives and friends. She reached out to Glen Biermann of KCCI-TV to coach the television and radio news components. Former students volunteered their time. The Valley Drama Booster Club was soon established.

The support was endless — but oh so necessary.

“It’s just this kind of washing machine: You get thrown in. And once you're thrown in, you're part of it,” Hansen said laughingly. “People just started coming on board, and once you're on board, you can't leave. You're here forever.”

Senior A.J. Bleskacek doesn’t take a moment of Valley Speech for granted, and is appreciative of what it is today. He’s been part of the group throughout all of his high school years.

“There's so much joy in all the students here, and me especially,” he said. “It's just fun. It's fun to be in speech, and to go to all-state for three straight years, has been a phenomenal experience. I wait for IHSSA to come around because it is such a great experience.”

The Belief, Trust, & Respect From Others

As the programs blossomed over the years, the trust in Hansen grew. Everyone soon realized she was someone who could help take Valley's speech and drama programs to new heights.

A tireless work ethic that’s unmatched, Hansen has established a standard for her students that originated from her childhood days on the family farm: Up early, tackling chores, a high-level of expectations, and a sense of urgency. Student leaders take note, with weekly officer meetings becoming an essential aspect of keeping tasks and responsibilities at the forefront.

“I know for sure that's where it's instilled in me,” she said of the relationship between her demeanor and the foundation she sets for students.

“You do your best and you arrive early and on time. You set the bar high, and they always do it if you tell them and you expect them and you practice it. You do it in a space that is a permissive environment where you can fail. You build a sense of trust and community and rapport, and they give back like five-times-fold when they know they’re safe.”

Senior Lauren Anderson is one of six officers who help get things rolling. She said the officers were nominated by their peers and represent Valley Drama and Valley Speech.

“It's a lot of fun since we all get along so well,” Anderson said. “For people to know they can come to us, it's such a blessing that I am able to do that. We're all such close friends, you can really go up to anyone and talk to them like you would a family.”

Yet Hansen can’t take sole credit for the successes Valley Speech and Valley Drama has garnered during her tutelage. The majority is due to the belief students, families, school and district administrators, and the community have in this process. They have faith, and continue to have faith, in the next directive this rich dynasty takes.

“To have someone believe in you when it's really some out-of-the-box thinking, they had a lot of trust in me. Said 'Yes. This is the place to do it,’” Hansen said. “With that you can dream big, you can shoot for the moon.

"And if you land among the stars, that's OK. The stars are a pretty good place to land.”

Having Skills ‘That Will Carry Them Throughout Life’

In the 19 years Hansen has led the school’s speech program, Valley has captured the E. Wayne Cooley Sweepstakes Award 12 times. It's given to the program with the most IHSSA all-state performing entries. On Saturday, 15 of Valley's 16 nominations, and one Valley Southwoods Freshman High School entry, will perform at the speech association’s annual all-state festival at the Iowa State Center in Ames.

The highest mark Valley’s ever earned? 19, in 2016. And, in 2015, Valley Speech earned Critic's Choice Awards — the top honor at the all-state competition — in five different categories. That remains a state record set by a single school.

Sure, big and shiny trophies to bring back for added display in Valley’s glass containers are nice. Mentions of your top honors in Valley Vibes are pretty cool. And having that bright spotlight shine your direction, with hundreds of eyes glued to your every move and ears pressed to each line, is even better.

But that’s not what only Valley Speech — strike that — that’s not what any Valley activity, club, or program strives to achieve.

It’s about the growth in ourselves. It’s about the empathy we have for others. It’s about the opportunities that are available to all. Those reminders to students are common nowadays, Hansen says.

“There's almost this expectation of we have to go to all-state. If we don't go to all-state ... Grr!” Hansen said of her students.

You won back in November when you came in here and wanted to be part of this. Now, they have skills. They have the skills that will carry them throughout life, whatever their profession is. They have connections, they have friendships, they've had experiences. Those things? Much more important than a trophy.”

Nearly 130 Valley students on Friday afternoon boarded buses for Ames following the hours-long pep rally held in the Staplin center. Donning their newly-minted orange all-state T-shirts, this very moment has been building for weeks. Together, the purest of smiles and absolute joy filled the space.

“You just take it minute by minute, second by second,” Bleskacek said. “There's so much to do, there's so many people ... it's really fun to see how many people smile this weekend. Even if you don't win, even if you mess up, you still smile. And that's what makes Mrs. Hansen and all the students here really love speech. It gives us a sense to really step back and focus on something for an eight- to 10-week span."

"They always talk about those things in high school that you're never going to forget," Anderson added, "and IHSSA all-state is definitely one of those things."

Joining the scores before them, the Valley Speech tradition is truly like none other.

“The IHSSA is built along the belief that no other form of activity is any more important than the arts of learning how to communicate effectively. Absolutely I think when we look at the job force right now and what skills employers are looking for — you name the field. We're so caught up in this,” Hansen said, picking up a smartphone, “when being able to communicate with another person one-on-one and be authentic and real and have empathy and grace to build a connection, that's a skill that they'll have for the rest of their life.

“It's such a gift that these kids have,” she continued. “They can give it to other people and share that skill with another human being. And they will. I have no doubt in my mind. They're all off to great adventures.”

To share their story.

To enjoy their passion.

To find their purpose.

IHSSA All-State Groups for Valley & Valley Southwoods

Valley High School

1-Act Play

“Clockwork: Or All Wound Up”

Adapted by: Ben Lilly. Based on the novel by: Philip Pullman. Directed by: Sarah Beth Weinberg. Assistant Director: Aaron Hunt. Head Stage Manager: Ellie Wellman. Assistant Stage Managers: Grace Derouin and Abby Kilpatrick. Crew directed by: Amanda Pichler. Crew: Ethan Amptman, Whisper Arbs, Riley Baldus, Brooke Boddicker, Seren Castellano, Emma DeJong, Zak Fleischman, Noah Goeders, Jordan Kazeze, Skylar Manna, Kendric Santos-Briggs, Eric Song.Performers: Ethan Amptman, Whisper Arbs, Riley Baldus, Jackie Boardman, Brooke Boddicker, Kellen Casper, Seren Castellano, Zane Coughennower, Bailee Dawson, Emma DeJong, Cal Fellows, Zak Fleischman, Savannah Fredregill, Noah Goeders, Hannah Grable, Aisling Hallahan, Derek Jessen, Audrey Johnson, Brooklyn Johnson, Annie Judge, Jordan Kazeze, Abby Kilpatrick, Celia Kuster, Andi Larson, Isabel Lewis, Nick Lewis, Claire Losh, Morgan Losh, MacKenzie Ludwig, Reagan Mann, Lanie Moore, Lucy Murugami, Jaelie Noglo, Grace Olsen, Azure Peterson, Karime Salamanca, Kendric Santos-Briggs, Alana Scherer, Sarah Schiess, Sahithi Shankaiahgari, Eric Song, Jacie Stewart, Luke Weeklund, Huda Wennerstrom, Libby White, Maya Williams, Quinn Williams.

Readers Theatre

“The Sad, Mysterious Tale Of Baby Mine: The Iowa State Fair Elephant, Circa 1929”

Directed by: Stacy Hansen. Stage Managers: Nicole Embree, Rachel Spence. Cast: Isaiah Aldiano, Gavin Beedon, Abby Bishop, A.J. Bleskacek, Ben Connolly, Allison Cook, Cate Dolphin, Maya Knudsen, Isabella Ksiazak, Joe Maxwell, Sydney Mixon, Suraj Moorjani, Jack Renda, Gabe Schebel, Eliza Sheffield.

Choral Reading

“Please Tell Me The Story Of Emmett Till”

Directed by: Stacy Hansen. Stage Manager: Lauren Anderson. Cast: Eric Amundson, Landon Denker, Sarah Dorn, Zoe Dunham, Alfreda Jarue, Hunter Khongmaly, Ava Neppl, Ellie Penick, Jacob Soto, Kya Stilwell, Mary Thomas, Carson Tow, Zoey Tucker, Andrew Voggesser, Nick Wharff.

Ensemble Acting

“Faith On A Tuesday”

By: Thomas C. Dunn. Directed by: Charlie Reese. Performers: Michael Cunningham, Joey Furnald.

“‘Night, Mother”

By: Marsha Norman. Directed by: Allison Koontz. Performers: Abby Bishop, Ella Bishop.

Group Improvisation

Directed by Joe Van Haecke. Performers: Grant DeWaay And Clay Stein.

Solo Mime

“The Time Traveler”

Directed by: Ted VanDeventer. Performer: A.J. Bleskacek.

“The Eagle Huntress: A Soaring Tale Of Trust And Companionship”

Directed by: Amanda Pichler. Performer: Isabella Ksiazak.

“Peter Parker, Origin Story: The Bullies, The Girl, The Homecoming Dance”

Directed by: Ted VanDeventer. Performer: Gabe Pruneda.

Television Newscasting

“The Day That Never Ended: Columbine After 20 Years”

Directed by: Glen Biermann and Justin Smith. Performers: Brynlea DeGroote, Nick Edgar, Savannah Fredregill, Andrew Gioffredi, Marleigh Heil, Lauren Lake, Suraj Moorjani, Lexi Ohringer, Carter Scallon, Sahithi Shankaiahgari, Ethan Tuttle, Hannah Walker.


Directed by: Glen Biermann and Justin Smith. Performers: Tim Anson, Gabe Ferren, Noah Ferren, Kaitlyn Forney, Alyssa Joyce, Quinn Kelly, Kaylyn Le, Oliver Parizek, Bryan Stewart, Josh Studer, Ellie Wellman, Maya Williams.

Radio Broadcasting


Directed by: Glen Biermann. Performers: Isaiah Aldiano, Cate Dolphin, Andrew Gioffredi, Marleigh Heil, Quinn Kelly, Bryan Stewart, Josh Studer.

Musical Theatre


Directed by: Bryan Gamboa and Megan Helmers. Stage Manager: Ava Neppl. Performers: Landon Denker, Summer Dunham, Zoe Dunham, Avi Gedler, Will Johnson, Jacob Soto, Avi Kaufman, Nick Wharff.

“Sweeney Todd”

Stage Manager: Isabel Lewis. Performers: Eric Amundson, Lanie Anthan, Connor Barnes, Ella Bishop, Chloe Edwards, Wyatt Glenn, Jack Renda, Mary Thomas.

“Toxic Avenger”

Performers: Kade Ferchen, Hunter Khongmaly, Jackson Skahill, Kya Stilwell, Emilee Tilton, Carson Tow, Andrew Voggesser, Mia Wells.

Valley Southwoods

Readers Theatre

“The Rainbow Crow” by Rhiana Yazzie

Directed by Maya Knudsen, Emilee Tilton, and Liz Meier. Performers: Christian Biwott, Bri Blevins, Cyd Denton, Andrew Dunahoo, Reese Gomez, Hanna Hardy, Bette Jess, Gabe King, Lillian Tuai.

Created By
Aaron Young