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Travis is just one of the students who almost didn't have a Doane Forensics Team to join. Doane is more than 136-years old, but its forensics program is less than 10 - a newborn to the sport. It all started with the forensics coach who looked at the challenge of starting a new program, looked at the hours and sacrifices it would mean and said: "I'll do it anyway." (more on coach Dawn Bartlett and the forensic team's journey below.)

Dawn Bartlett almost didn't interview for the job of Doane College forensics coach. She knew what it would take to launch a forensics team at a then-130-year old liberal arts college. It’s hard to start a program anywhere, let alone in Nebraska, home to more nationally ranked college forensics programs than any state in the country.

When Bartlett pictured her future at Doane, she saw a novice team, no assistant coaches and seven-day workweeks. But the competitor in her also saw a worthy challenge. She came to the interview, fell in love with the campus, faculty -- even her potential student competitors, one of which she had coached in high school forensics.

She took the job in 2000 and put together a playbook worthy of a college football program. The University of Nebraska-Kearney graduate met with mentors in forensics and mapped out goals and strategies. They charted a three-year route to the highly competitive American Forensics Association (AFA) nationals, as well as the tournaments and transitions it would take to get there.

That first year, Bartlett worked with 10 students with 10 different levels of talent. Two students ensured the program would be around the next year, Bartlett recalled. “Anne Golden ’04 was probably the most talented competitor this team has ever seen. Erin Cico ’04 was the most dedicated this program has ever seen.”

The first years were tough. Doane had to earn the respect of nationally ranked teams like Creighton, Hastings College, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska-Omaha -- teams that wrote Doane off its first years at bat.

“There is nothing worse than competing on a team where you know you aren’t the team to beat,” Bartlett said. It makes for low morale especially when considering the amount of work behind each loss.

There’s a reason the Forensics Program weeds out one or more competitors each year, like natural selection. They practice three hours each Tuesday night. They take a class. They sign up for weekly individual coaching times. They meet an additional night each week to peer coach each other.

Most weekends from September to December, January through April, they crawl in a van Friday afternoon, compete for 12 or more hours Saturday and Sunday and return to campus a few hours before classes resume on Monday. They compete against larger programs backed by larger budgets and longer histories.

But slowly and surely, Doane gained ground. They started to finish at the top each weekend. Bartlett received the Joe Black Distinguished Service Award in 2005, bringing recognition to the program. They stopped going to easy tournaments to gain experience and started competing—and winning—at tournaments that boasted past national champions.

They became the team to beat, Bartlett said. The respect of peers was better than any trophy.

When Doane transitioned from the average competition of the National Forensics Association National Tournament to the stiff competition of the AFA tournament, “We were ready. We placed in the top 25 in year four,” she said.

They have hit many of the milestones Bartlett mapped. They placed second at the Nebraska state tournament, behind only the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and ahead of fierce rival Hastings College. Each of 12 team members qualified for the 2007 AFA national tournament, where Doane placed 21st out of 85 teams.

Kiley Mackie ‘07 of Scottsbluff was named to the AFA’s All-American Team, a distinction given to about 20 seniors nationwide who excel in forensics, scholarship and service. Doane graduate Abi Mihel made the team last year.

“I’m proudest of fact that we’ve had two all Americans in two years. It really speaks to the quality of the students on our team,” Bartlett said.

Erica Heiden ‘07 said the depth of the team was a key strength, something that increased dramatically since she joined in 2003. “While many teams tend to rely heavily on their older competitors, we are much more balanced, relying on each team member for success.” In her eyes, team unity also is crucial to success. “We do a high amount of peer coaching.”

Even though the team spends four or more nights and days together a week, members still hang out together, with five of 11 competitors sharing a suite in Hansen Hall. “I know it’s easier to equate success with winning trophies, but I think it’s our team unity that sets us apart from other teams,” Heiden said. They are close-knit group, the most cohesive Bartlett has seen as coach or competitor, one that holds each other accountable.

This year, Bartlett saw many of the things she envisioned when she considered that interview seven years ago. Hang around in Whitcomb Lee Conservatory on any Tuesday night and you’ll see a lively, loud, and talented group portraying characters ranging from Amelia Earhart to a homicidal gay man whose lover died of AIDS. They talk to walls (practicing their presentations). They zone out with laptops (finishing yet another revision of their speeches.)

Doane Forensics is moving into Phase 2 planning now. Next year’s goal? “To move into the 15-19 rank at next year’s national tournament.” The strategy isn’t nearly as complicated now. “They just have to keep winning.”

Assistant coaches:
Erin Cico ’04 (Doane grad)
Adam Knowlton '05 (UNL grad)

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