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The LaRue County High School Speech and Drama team set new standards this season, with competitors winning major tournaments and snagging college scholarships.
Now, the spotlight is on their coach, Katy Blair Cecil, who is being honored for lifetime achievement.
Cecil will be inducted into the Kentucky High School Speech League Hall of Fame in March.
Cecil was notified of the honor after the KHSSL Board of Directors met in June. She sits on the board, but recused herself when the vote was cast.
“I was excited to say the least, and a little shocked,” said Cecil. “I never thought I had a chance this year.”
To be nominated, a coach must have at least 10 years of service in forensics in Kentucky, possess a high degree of integrity, have outstanding service above and beyond the call of duty, a willingness to help colleagues and show dedication to caring for individual students and their futures.
Cecil was nominated by Rosemary Cundiff-Brown, coach at North Oldham High School. The women became friends when they were students at Western Kentucky University about 25 years ago.
“Katy has had a ridiculous amount of success with the LaRue County Speech Team, from the local to the national level,” Brown wrote in her nomination. “As a matter of fact, it would be an impossible task to list the accomplishments of the LCHS team. Every year, she loses incredible members to graduation, but then she turns right around and recruits the top students.”
The efficiency of Katy’s teams has been unparalleled, said Cecil’s assistant coach, Bill Thompson.
“In truth a KESDA (Kentucky Educational Speech and Drama Association) team state championship will probably never be brought back to LCHS. Mathematically it’s just impossible. (Larger teams typically win the event.) However, pound-for-pound, LaRue County has outshown other programs across the state the last four years, because Katy is the best there is when it comes to getting the most out of the kids she coaches.”
The LCHS team turned heads in the speech world by its strong showing at the Glenbrooks tournament, said Thompson. It’s the third largest high school invitational in the country and the most competitive of all the fall tournaments.
“Our team of three students placed fourth in sweepstakes and had more finalists (three) than any other team,” he added. “People around the country were shocked, because results like that are unheard of. Put simply, Katy makes kids believe in themselves and what they are capable of, and when you do that, magical things happen in and out of rounds.”
Cindy Smitha Thomas, the mother of recent senior speech competitor Elijah Thomas, agreed.
“Katy is always able to put a positive spin on most any negative situation,” she said. “She looks for the good in people and is always there to lend a helping hand. (She) has taught her team the ability to respect, celebrate and embrace the achievements of their fellow competitors.”
Cecil has been teaching and coaching in LaRue County for 13 years. Her first six years were at LaRue County Middle School where she served as assistant coach to Helena Freedlund. Cecil inherited the team when Freedlund retired in 2007 – the same year she transferred to the high school.
She competed at Western Kentucky University and served as a student coach after she was no longer eligible to compete. It was then she met her future husband, Eric Cecil, and Thompson.
She competed at LCHS under the tutelage of first her father, Garland Blair, and her sister, Kim Mather.
“I have always had a passion for speech and debate,” said Cecil. “I believe that the value of the activity cannot be truly measured, and certainly not in awards and trophies. The value manifests itself daily in the communication skills and confidence the students gain who do this activity.”
Cecil worked in retail management after graduating from WKU, but she continued to be involved in speech, working with her father, who was the director of the Kentucky Catholic Forensic League, an affiliate league to the National Catholic Forensic League.
“It was his responsibility to run the qualifying tournament which sent Kentucky students to nationals each year, and then at nationals he was the chair of one of the events,” said Cecil. “It was his responsibility to make sure the event was run properly and that all the rules were followed. Since his death in 1999 and my sister’s retirement in 2010, I have taken over both of those responsibilities.”
Cundiff-Brown said Cecil is a favorite with the national competitors.
“The kids know she genuinely loves and supports each and every one of them. At all tournaments, Katy becomes a presence in all of their lives. She knows their names. She greets all of the kids with a smile and a positive attitude. She is even a mom to many of them. Many of them come to her before they even come to their own coaches with an issue.”
Cecil said there was some pressure for her to live up to expectations set by family members – especially her father, the fierce founder of the LCHS program and 2001 inductee into the KHSSL Hall of Fame.
“My father is legendary in many ways, and most people have vivid memories of him – they either loved him or hated him, that’s for sure. And, Kim was as formidable in her own right. She coached a national champion (Donnie Mather, dramatic interpretation) in her short time as the head coach, and, of course, she was a phenomenal teacher.”
Her brother, Kenneth, “made a real name for himself in the classroom” at LCHS as well.
“His former students often stop me and tell me what an impact he had in their lives,” said Cecil.
She describes her mother, Ruth Blair, longtime foreign language teacher at LCHS, as a “saint.”
“I have yet to meet a person who didn’t think highly of her,” said Cecil. “Talk about walking in the shadows of giants. I work hard to make my own way, but I would be lying to say that some of the doors that have been opened for me haven’t had anything to do with my name. I have certainly enjoyed some instant respect based on being Katy ‘Blair’ Cecil, but I am constantly striving to prove that I will continue to work hard to deserve it.”
Cecil said her father, who began teaching in 1966, was a “very exacting coach.” He coached several state champions – his first was Shaun Chelf in 1991 – and his students consistently qualified for the national speech tournament. He was a “diamond” coach – a “badge of honor in the speech world” based on a portion of the points earned by students.
“He had a way he envisioned a performance should be done, and he would work every word of the entire 10 minute performance until it was exactly as he wanted it. I have some similar qualities, but as the students progress through the program, I take a more hands-off approach. I encourage them to make their own choices of material and to try their own interpretations, then I fix things that I feel are not quite right.”
“My mother was the nurturer,” she added. “After my father would tell a student all of the things he or she was doing awful, Dad would send the kid to Mom so she could make him/her feel better. She was the one who could always find something positive to say about any performance, no matter how awful. I think I have a little bit of each one of them in me.”
Ruth Blair also was inducted into the KHSSL in 2001 as “everyone in the speech world knew that they truly were a team.”
Cecil made her own mark on the program “from the moment she took over the high school team,” said Thompson.
“LCHS has increased its presence both within the state and nationally,” he said. “This county has a rich tradition in speech and debate, it has had students achieve things on both the state and national level historically, but this type of continued high level of success is something unique to Katy’s tenure at LCHS.”
He described his colleague as “tireless.”
“All teachers work more hours than they will ever be compensated for,” he said. “All coaches go above and beyond for their kids and give freely of their time. But few activities require the time commitment that speech does. Students actively compete from September to late June. We travel more than 20 weekends a school year and miss holidays with families like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. When the season ends you have two months to read a few thousand pages of literature to cut more than 40 pieces with students for the next school year when it starts 11 weeks after the last one ended.”
Thompson said Cecil’s enthusiasm for the program is infectious.
“The amazing thing about Katy is the passion she has helped to build for speech in the community at large,” he said. “Friends from around the country see us share articles from (The LaRue County Herald News) about speech and see the likes and comments that speech posts generate on Facebook, and it blows them away. This community has embraced this team and constantly push us to achieve more. It takes a true leader like Katy to achieve that. I think that is the take away from working with Katy is that she realizes you can’t do everything – although she would if she could – but you can accomplish anything when you have a support group of committed parents, alumni, and community partners supporting you along the way.”
Cecil believes “any student can be coached to give his best and to be a more confident and skilled performer.”
“Will every student be national championship material? No. But, I also don’t think that is what speech is all about,” said Cecil. “Don’t get me wrong, I like it when the kids win. It is very empowering for them, but more than anything else it is about making the students just better all-around people. I want to give them skills that they will use for their entire lifetimes. Those who have an incredible amount of natural talent already have those skills. The coach’s job with those kids is to hone the skills they already have and help them to achieve to their highest potential.”
Cecil said she accommodates the schedules of all her students – many are involved in sports, band or other academic teams. Some hold jobs.
“I see the value in everything that the school has to offer, and I don’t like to limit choices, so I make myself available to my students on their terms,” she said. “I think that is one of the things that makes my program attractive to those really top notch students who tend to do well with speech but other things as well. Brian (Anderson) plays soccer, so did Curtis (Milby). Elijah (Thomas) and Joey (Gearon) were in Band, and Joey played tennis as well. I do all I can to accommodate them in whatever way I can.”
Cecil said the speech program is unique in that students do not pay to participate.
“The program covers all the expenses of the entry fees and travel for every student,” she said. “The only expenses they have are meals on trips and they are expected to compete in nice suits, but even those I can often get provided by local supporters who don’t want something like that to keep a child from participating. There are no fees involved in doing speech. That was something my father and especially my mother felt very strongly about. This activity cannot do the good it is supposed to do if it isn’t accessible to all students, and I have, even in my short career, seen speech change the lives of several of my students.”
Being named to the Hall of Fame is just the latest in a string of Cecil’s accomplishments.
She received the bid to host the NCFL National Tournament in 2017, was named the 2011 KHSSL Coach of the Year and 2013 NFL Coach of the Year, earned diamond status in 2013, and is the director of the Kentucky Catholic Forensic League.