Talk about awesome: Speech Team coach gets huge honor

"Coach is an amazing person inside and out. He’s not just there for us at tournaments. He’s there for anything we ever need, speech-related or not. He also believes that his students teach him as much as he teaches us and always shows interest in what we’re doing, even if it means learning slang to keep up with us!" -Hannah Petitti, ’20

"He’s such a great coach because he tailors his coaching to each one of us. He always listens to what interests us and figures out how to weave our interests into engaging speech topics. He is always so kind and encouraging and makes Speech Team a truly wonderful experience." -Katie Bauman, ’21

With those kinds of qualities, it’s easy to understand why ’Berg Speech Team Coach Dan Higgins was just named Ohio Forensics Association Educator of the Year. It’s a role he was born to fill.

The Higgins family has a joke that “the first word you learn out of the crib is Heidelberg,” says Dan, who hails from a long legacy of ‘Berg grads. A psychology and music double major, Dan graduated in 1993 with a wealth of Speech Team experience as an undergrad.

“It was so cool to get to do theatre, speech and Concert Choir. My favorite things were traveling with the Speech Team and being in choir,” he recalls. He felt welcomed into the Speech Team family from the moment he set foot on campus as a transfer student from the University of Nebraska.

“I was this unknown entity and Dr. Jan Younger (long-time communication professor and forensics coach, now retired) took me under his wing,” Dan says. “That first year, I made it to nationals. That was my thing. I loved it. I couldn’t believe I could get college credit for talking!”

Dan returned to Heidelberg for his master’s degree in counseling, graduating in 1995. A few years into his career as a mental health practitioner, he was asked to return as an adjunct instructor to teach courses in the then-Communication and Theatre Arts Department. About five years after that, he became the director of forensics. Today, he gets to welcome Speech Team competitors in the same way he was embraced nearly 30 years ago.

Working with students of all majors, he has a few prerequisites to be on the Speech Team: They have to work hard, they have to be willing to have fun and they have to continue to learn and grow in their speaking skills.

"I love seeing growth in our students and as presenters, seeing their confidence build,” Dan says. “And beyond all of that, I really enjoy the friendships I make with them that endure long after they’ve graduated."

Dan’s side job coaching forensics comes with a couple of added bonuses. He has worked in private practice as a licensed professional clinical counselor for 24 years. Today, he owns the growing organization Cornerstone Counseling, a Christian agency in Bellevue that just opened its second office in Sandusky in 2015. As such, he frequently finds himself behind a podium, sharing his expertise at professional presentations and meetings. “Working with the Speech Team keeps me sharper as a speaker,” he says. “And working as a therapist helps me refine my teaching of classes like Family Communication, too.”

Through Speech Team season, Dan and the team travel to tournaments primarily in Ohio. Each one brings new challenges and new successes. “Sometimes, we’re going to win trophies. As competitors, you always want to win. I get that,” he says, adding that the value of the experience far exceeds the competition.

He’s quick to rattle off the names of students whom he’s coached on the Speech Team who have had impressive runs in tournaments and who have impressed him with their growth and leadership. One such student is Hannah Petitti, who he calls “among the best students I’ve ever coached.”

“I’ve been so lucky through the years to work with true student leaders like Hannah,” he says.

Needless to say, those student leaders feel fortunate, too, to have such a fun, knowledgeable and compassionate coach to guide their efforts.

“Outside of being a great forensics coach,” Hannah says, “Dan is truly an amazing life coach who encourages all of his students to live life the ‘Berg way: purpose with distinction.”

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