BEMIDJI -- Tom Lucas, coach of Bemidji High School’s speech and debate teams, was recently nationally recognized for his coaching work over the years.

Lucas has been coaching in the world of speech and debate for nearly 17 years, and this month earned a second “Diamond Award” from the National Speech and Debate Association.

To do so, he accumulated 30,000 points over the course of his coaching career -- each point is earned based on student achievement at competitions, leadership and service activities -- putting him at the top of speech and debate coaches nationwide.

Each point represents dedicated coaching and hours of practice, revision, and growth for students, according to the National Speech and Debate Association website.

Lucas credits the students for his coaching successes and said seeing them achieve their goals is the reason he continues.

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“If you give students an opportunity to be brilliant, the vast majority of the time they will be brilliant, they just need the chance,” he said. “That’s one of the things that kind of keeps you going. You get a new group of students with new goals and you get to watch them develop their skills and start to reach the success levels that they hoped they would have.”

His coaching background

Lucas got his start in coaching after being a competitor himself, starting back in the seventh grade.

“I loved the activity and I never really completely got out of it. Once I graduated high school I did a lot of judging and did a lot of volunteer coaching over the years,” he said. “When I started teaching in the late 90s, I coached the team in Mahnomen. When I came to Bemidji, an opportunity presented to help as a volunteer for the middle school program here, and I did that for a year.”

After the Bemidji High School coaching position opened up, he transitioned to that role, keeping the program afloat.

“There was some concern at that time where they were having difficulty finding a coach for the high school program and I told them that they shouldn’t end the program for lack of a coach because if they needed me to do that I would,” he said, adding that the coaching community helped him feel welcome. “A lot of the coaches that had been active when I was competing were still active, so I had a lot very good mentors.”

Lucas said his most memorable year in coaching came after his first crop of middle school students reached their senior years of high school, and saw a lot of success.

"Having seen those kids myself from the middle school and then becoming their high school coach as well, and having them have the success that they had as seniors, was definitely a memorable stretch,” he said.

2020 was shaping up to be another memorable year, but the coronavirus cut the teams’ successes short. Lucas actually expected to receive his second Diamond Award in the spring, until COVID-19 happened.

“Unfortunately, last year was going to be probably our best year in several, because we had a number of students who were seniors who had come through the program since they were in sixth grade, and they were having remarkable seasons, last year before it was cut short. That could have been a comparable year,” Lucas said of the spring 2020 speech season.

This fall, the debate season took place virtually, with students competing over video from their own homes. The spring speech season, which is gearing up for competitions shortly, will also take place virtually, which of course comes with a set of challenges.

This year, the team is a relatively young team, and Lucas said he’s called this year “a bridge year” for them, hoping they will look at it as a chance to sharpen their skills for future seasons.

Lucas said the speech and debate programs are immensely beneficial for students.

“This activity provides a real variety of skill opportunities. Some students come in with a natural ability, and some students come in with goals to reach a certain level of performance,” he said. “It’s been rewarding for me to watch students get to their goals no matter where they happen to be.”

He said students go through a lot of stress in preparing for speech and debate competitions, along with a lot of hard work and preparation time.

“There’s a lot of stress, they’re putting a lot out there, speaking in public and learning these skills,” he said. “To see them see that kind of success, you kind of live it with them, but at the same time, you celebrate with them when they reach their goals, and that’s something special.”

“It makes me old and keeps me young at the same time,” he added, laughing.

In theory, in the future, Lucas could earn yet another Diamond Award, but he would need to earn another 30,000 points, which he said would take him into his 70s, which he was adamant wouldn’t happen. Lucas will be honored for his achievement at the national tournament this spring.

Lucas said he is uncomfortable with the publicity, especially for himself, -- he cut the interview short to head off to speech practice -- but said he hopes to bring light to the program.

“It’s good when the activity gets attention,” Lucas said. “They don’t have big gymnasiums that they play to, so a lot of times their successes are more intrinsic, so it’s nice to occasionally get them acknowledgment for what they’ve done.”