JW Speech Team co-captains reflect on a whirlwind of four years and ultimately becoming State competitors

Pictured above are co-captains Aniya Davis (left) and Julianna Byrne (right) of the Joliet West Speech Team. The senior pair made it all the way to the IHSA Speech State Final for their Humorous Duet Acting performance.

Kristin Blake

Pictured above are co-captains Aniya Davis (left) and Julianna Byrne (right) of the Joliet West Speech Team. The senior pair made it all the way to the IHSA Speech State Final for their Humorous Duet Acting performance.

Megan Krok, Views Editor

They have spent the last four years tucked away in the Little Theater of Joliet West, giving their all at rehearsals day in and day out. Now, they’ve made history as two of only twelve members of the Joliet West Speech Team to have ever competed at the IHSA Speech State Final competition.

Speech Team co-captains Julianna Byrne and Aniya Davis have had an incredibly successful season performing their Humorous Duet Acting piece of A Brief Primer on the Female Species by Julia Neva. The veteran members have placed into finals in ten out of the twelve tournaments Joliet West has competed in this season, including a whopping four second place wins and receiving five tournament championships. Byrne and Davis now reflect on their journey in competitive speech these past four years and how their success led them to the State Final.

Reminiscing on their novice year, Byrne and Davis had differing plans when it came to auditioning for Speech Team. Byrne explains that not making the cut for the school’s fall play led to a friend’s recommendation to audition for the Speech Team. “I had full intentions to not join,” Byrne recalls, “but I did, and that would have been a horrible decision if I never auditioned.”

Meanwhile, Davis had her heart set on Speech Team even before she began high school. “I’ve wanted to act for many years, since I was six, so [Speech Team] was right up my alley.” She remembers that she first heard about high school competitive speech in seventh grade, and wanted to audition from that moment on.

Although they had differing plans regarding Speech Team as freshmen, what kept the duo on the team all four years remains the same. They both express that the initial sense of family and community they were met with in their novice year continues, and that there is no other team quite like this one.

“With these people, I can be myself around them,” Byrne tells of her initial experience with Speech Team. “They are so welcoming and nice…and you don’t really get that from other teams or clubs when you’re a new member.”

With this deep love for the team established so early on, Byrne and Davis were passionate about taking on the leadership role as captains this year, even though they were met with the frightening possibility of no season at all for their senior year due to COVID-19.

Luckily, the Joliet West Speech Team was able to compete their entire season virtually. And now, what began as a simple suggestion to their coaches at the end of their junior year came to fruition as Byrne and Davis would become acting partners this season.

The seniors’ strong friendship undoubtedly played in their favor this year, as their chemistry beamed through the screen with every Zoom performance.

“Having someone who you truly care about and you enjoy being around means a lot to performing a piece and wanting to perform a piece,” Davis tells of why she believes she and Byrne were so successful this season. “It also comes down to the fact that it’s our senior year; we want to do really good, we want to go to state. It’s that motivation and drive. It’s really that passion for Speech Team that’s driving you to do so well.”

When it became a reality that she and Davis could have a very successful senior season together, Byrne remembers the feeling of winning the Marian Classic—historically the first major tournament of every season and one of the most difficult to compete in. She recalls being on a  FaceTime call with Davis during the livestreamed award ceremony, and screaming out of pure excitement once second place was announced and their names had not been called yet, so they knew they’d won. Surely this was a foreshadowing of their triumphant season to come.

The senior duo would go on to get four more tournament championships, including an IHSA Regional championship. But no other tournament brought as much pressure like the IHSA Sectional.

“I was at the point where I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up or both,” Byrne jokingly goes through her feelings on the day of Sectionals. She further explains that during her and Davis’s preliminary rounds, she was overly critical and worried that their performances weren’t the best that day. But then they broke into the final round, and this was their last chance for a shot at the State Final. 

When it was time for awards, more nerves set in. As the names of third and second place were called, Byrne and Davis had no idea what to expect; and just that quickly, it was announced that they were Sectional champions and State bound!

“Going to State just validates all of the hard work you put in and the sleepless nights,” Davis affirms.

Unfortunately, Byrne and Davis were only two spots away from making it to the final round at State, creating a bittersweet ending to this season’s journey. “I was just…I was so crushed,” candidly reflects Byrne, “I felt like we deserved it, I felt like we had worked towards this. It was really disappointing because you want to go the distance and get the farthest that you can. But being at State is an accomplishment of itself and that has been the goal, and I accomplished—we—accomplished that goal that we had wanted for so long.”

However, there was one special achievement that the duo did reach. This was an achievement not represented by a medal of trophy, but rather, a pillow. This pillow is quite the unique addition to the Joliet West Speech Team. Davis explains that it is made out of a sweater worn by the first Joliet West member to go to State competition, AJ Galli, who is the team’s current assistant coach. His name is listed at the top of the pillow along with every member of the team who’s been a state competitor since Galli’s bid at State in 2011.

Having her name on the pillow is a major achievement for Davis because she believes it establishes her legacy on the team. “It’s such an accomplishment and an honor to be on the pillow because you can’t erase it, you can’t take it back. It’s going to be there forever.”

Similarly for Byrne, the pillow serves as validation for her impact on the Joliet West Speech Team. “When you’ve put four years in of effort and this has been your goal for four years, it’s such a good feeling to have it be recognized like that. The pillow is something specific only to our team, with history and meaning. You can see in the team’s history who’s made it to state, which is not a lot, so that further validates that you were really successful.”

Looking back on their novice year, Byrne and Davis fell in love with Speech Team right away and knew they wanted to excel into leadership positions and state competitions. Although they may have doubted their ability at times, their coach, Kristin Blake, surely never did.

“From the moment I met Aniya and Julianna, I knew they had greatness within them. Throughout their time on the team, they maintained a constant, positive presence and were chosen to be co-captains because of their leadership qualities. I am thrilled that their amazingly successful Speech Team career ended with a trip to the State finals.”