America’s funniest high schooler returns to defend her title

GRANGER TWP. — Northeast Ohio has a national champion who’s practicing hard and preparing for the opportunity to repeat as the winner of the National Speech and Debate Association’s (NSDA) Humorous Interpretation event. That chance comes later this month, at the NSDA’s National Tournament in Dallas, June 17-21.

Taylor Headrick, a just-graduated senior at Highland High School, vaulted to prominence in area speech and debate circles by finishing first among 246 competitors at the 2018 NSDA National Tournament. Her interpretation The Rocky Mountain Junction gave her a victory by more than 30 point ranks in the National Finals.

A 30-point victory in a final round of a Speaking at NSDA Nationals is like a James Holzhauer triumph in Jeopardy! It was a special triumph in that Taylor became the first national champion in the history of Highland, and also the first female from Ohio to win the national humor title.

A few months ago, Taylor also capped off her Ohio Speech & Debate Association competitive career by placing first in at OSDA’s State Finals in Humorous Interp. It was her fourth time qualifying for State Finals, and her third appearance in the final round at States. This month she also marks her third appearance at Nationals.


Taylor’s path to being a speech champion began in elementary school. “My mom (Tanya) is a very good singer, and when I was in fifth grade she started musicals at my elementary school,” she recalls. “I was cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and I discovered that I loved performing. Later, at the 8th grade talent show, I did a performance where I sang with my mouth closed, just for laughs.”

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Taylor Headrick on stage with her first place awards at the National Speech & Debate Associations 2018 National Tournament. Photo from NSDA.

It was her acting on stage which attracted coaches at Highland to Taylor. “I was a pirate in Peter Pan at middle school, and I wanted that role to stand out. So I strutted my legs in a really exaggerated manner for the play,” she recalls. “My eighth grade teacher, Mrs. April Eckman, told me that I need to be in speech and debate.

“I went to the meeting and got into it,” she adds. “My whole life I’ve tried sports, arts, and other activities, basically everything they offer for students today. But the only thing I have been really passionate about and strong at was music, theater and speech.”

Slowly but steadily, the passion for speech resulted in improvement and prominence for Taylor.

“I was not all that good my freshman year, as I didn’t yet know what I was doing,” she recalls. “I placed 4th at one tournament that year, Laurel, and that was it. I learned more, tournament by tournament, by watching other competitors. I made it to qualifying for States that year, and I was excited about that.”

That first experience at the OSDA State Finals in 2016 whetted Taylor’s appetite to do better still.

“What motivated me was that I started looking at those who were really good at States. I also began watching videos of other good humor performers,” Taylor says. “I put myself into the mindset that I was capable of being really good if I worked hard at it, and that’s that I did.”


Taylor experienced a breakthrough in Humor Interpretation as a sophomore.  She did it by striving harder to develop and improve characterizations – presentations of various characters – in her scripts.

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Taylor with Suzette Burtoft, head speech and debate coach at Highland High School, at the 2018 NSDA National Awards.

“Taylor is a talented character actress. She is able to individualize her characterizations at a level that I haven’t seen before as a coach,” says Suzette Burtoft, Taylor Headrick’s coach.  Burtoft teaches at Highland and is in her 12th season as the speech & debate head coach there.  She is open to experimenting and develop new characters through vocalization, and she also works well with her non-verbals in a powerful way to support and create characterization.

“Taylor’s facial expressions and vocalizations are two extremely powerful abilities that she is able to use within her pieces,” Burtoft adds.

One other thing helped, something every parent and child understands – watching cartoons on television.


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Taylor doing one of her characterizations. Photo by J. Kerezy

“I might have been watching too many cartons growing up, because I’ve always been fascinated about doing weird voices,” Taylor says with a chuckle. “So I explored doing voices. I would sit down for hours and just try different sounds and see what I could do with my voice. I explored it with different characters.

Additionally, Taylor received a lot of support from her family. My dad (Chris Headrick) is goofy with words, so he liked what I was doing,” she says.  “My siblings all encouraged me, which helped. Now they bug me if I’m not practicing.”

In her next year of competing, Taylor’s abilities and rankings soared. She qualified for OSDA States again, and also qualified at the Eastern Ohio NSDA District tournament to compete at the National Tournament. She “broke” or advanced at both States and Nationals, made it all the way to State Finals, placing 5th, and she kept winning at Nationals, finishing in 15th place (advancing to quarter finals) her sophomore season.

“That experience at 2017 Nationals really motivated me,” Taylor recalls. “I saw a lot of awfully good fellow competitors there. It was a whole new ballpark for me. When I placed 15th – just one spot away from semifinals, it served as a motivator.  For my junior year, the goal was to get to and do better still – even just to get to 14th place and into the semi-finals at Nationals.”

It also led to Taylor Headrick gaining a larger circle of acquaintances in the world of speech and debate.  “I made friends from all over the country. Reese Johnson and Zack Mundt from Apple Valley HS in Minnesota are some of my best friends now, and I have a lot more due to competing at NSDA Nationals.”

Another of her “best buds” is a fellow Ohio competitor, Drake Spina of Tuscarawas Valley High School. Drake also advanced to National Finals in Humor in 2018. Despite being an hour’s drive away from each other, Drake and Taylor were each other’s date for their respective high school proms earlier this spring.



By the time Taylor’s junior year began, she had figured out how to take the next steps to advance. It began with selection of a good play to provide her script for Humor competition.

“I went to playscripts (a play website), type in a random word, such as pizza or cat, and then I’ll read a summary of the plays. If it seems interesting, I’ll read some more,” she explains. “The play I used my junior year, The Rocky Junction Rumor, came from this process.

In The Rocky Junction Rumor, written by Christa Crewdson, Taylor found a one-person presentation with six different voices representing six different people. It was a perfect match for her abilities and interests.

This script had other advantages too. “I use clean comedy, as I want everyone be impacted in a positive way by what I do,” Taylor says. “I just worked on comedic timing and improving my delivery practice after practice, tournament after tournament.”

It succeeded. Taylor won or finished in the “Final Six” at numerous OSDA local tournaments as junior, and advanced to 2nd place at OSDA State Finals. After qualifying for a second time, she next set her sights on OSDA Nationals and began working hard at it.

“I practiced about three days a week with Mrs. Burtoft. One practice is a run-through type with working on timing,” Taylor says. “Another day’s practice is working on blocking, characterizations, stances, delivery, and all the little things that go into an Interp performance. And then the third practice we put it all together.”

At the 2018 NSDA Tournament, Taylor exceeded her goal by advancing to National Finals in Humor. That meant giving her final speech, along with six other finalists, on the main stage at the Ft. Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center with about 2,500 spectators in the auditorium.

Those first few seconds of presenting The Rocky Junction Rumor at National Finals in front of thousands, plus the addition of bright stage lights, was nerve-wracking. “Playing characters helps me get over my stage fright,” she says.

“I had never expected to be a finalist, much less a national champion,” she recalls. “The adrenaline is unreal. You are so overwhelmed with excitement … it’s really awesome.”

After completed their ballots at NSDA Nationals, it turned out that nine of the 15 Humor judges had Taylor ranked first in the National Finals round. That made her national champion. She won a $3,750 scholarship, which became much greater when Western Kentucky University offered her a full scholarship to study there.

“Imagine that doing funny voices would get you a scholarship to college,” Taylor muses. “I never thought that colleges would be recruiting, but it happened. Western Kentucky said,  ‘we want you on our team’ basically. Eastern Michigan was another school which had offered me a scholarship.”


Being a national champion didn’t bring fortune to Taylor and her family, but it certainly vaulted her to a position of fame in the speech & debate world.  “Now I get instant messages and communication from others in speech from all over the country, including Alaska and Hawaii, contacting me for advice. That really makes my day,” she says.

This month Taylor is one of nine competitors from Highland High School vying for placing among the nation’s best at NSDA Nationals. Highland finished in 5th place at OSDA State Finals, helped in large measure by Taylor placing first in Humor Interp.

But put aside all the accolades of being a national champion though, because she remains a very humble, down-to-earth person.  “Taylor Headrick characterizes what it means to be a wonderful person and an incredible teammate, because of every way she has worked to help others on our team and the friendship that she provides us,” says Cecilia Mainzer, a fellow senior on the Highland Speech and Debate Squad.

“My mom is my inspiration,” Taylor says. “She has four kids, she has a full-time job. She’s a speech coach, she directs musicals. When I’m feeling overwhelmed I think of her, because I’m really doing very little compared to my mom.

Taylor’s competition piece for 2018-2019 comes from the play Killer Halloween, a spin-off from a horror movie, written by Dennis Snee. Like The Rocky Mountain Junction, it features several characters and gives Taylor the opportunity to present many characterizations, especially with facials and body language. A tall competitor with auburn-colored hair, Taylor also employs lipstick strategically as a Humor Interp. competitor (something most guys won’t try.)  “I feel it’s the best way to express from my face,” she explains. It’s bold. It draws attention.”

Of course that’s all on top of the endless hours of practice she puts in as she prepared for NSDA Nationals.

“Taylor’s dedication and hard work is undeniable throughout each season, and I’ve seen her in all four years,” Cecilia Mainzer adds. “Even though she truly has a talent for what she does, she still works hard to make it the best she can. Everyone sees her passion and her commitment and it inspires our team.”

Mrs. Burtoft, the coach, agrees. “Taylor is an example of what can happen when you have all the right piece in place for a team,” she explains. “We have been very blessed at Highland to not only have talented students, but also to have an administration that has been very supportive of the program.”


Not unsurprisingly, Taylor sees herself becoming a comedienne. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are some of her idols, as is Lucille Ball.

“Getting up there, being vulnerable, but in a very confident way … that’s what I’ve learned,” she explains. “I hope to be a voice for cartoon characters some day. That would be so cool.”  Taylor plans on majoring in communications and also pursuing a minor in theater at Western Kentucky.

But first there’s June 17-21, a third trip to NSDA Nationals, and an opportunity to defend her title as America’s funniest high schooler.

(If you have a story suggestion for, feel free to e-mail it to John Kerezy at NEXT UP: Much more than a walk in the park.)

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