Mic Drop!

Speech coach Ms. Jackie Zeman steps down
At the 2023 Speech banquet, Ms. Jackie Zeman sat surrounded by the teams graduating seniors and the incoming head coach.
Photo Courtesy of:
At the 2023 Speech banquet, Ms. Jackie Zeman sat surrounded by the team’s graduating seniors and the incoming head coach. Photo Courtesy of:
Ms. Jackie Zeman

Fourteen: Ms. Jacqueline Zeman’s magic number during speech season.

Fourteen: the number of unique events—unique styles, sets of rules, techniques—on the IHSA speech circuit, each demanding a coach’s complete understanding. 

Fourteen: the number of hours, from preparing for a speech tournament at 5:30 a.m. to poring over English papers past 7 p.m., that Zeman devoted to her students every day, six days a week. 

Fourteen: the number of days between Regionals and State—the two-week climax of the speech season—that made those years of learning 14 events, those months of 14-hour work days, worth it. 

But last school year, as Zeman led Community’s speech team to its most successful postseason in decades—advancing six competitors to State across seven events—she was writing the final chapter of a coaching career for the books. 

After years of failing to advance a Speech competitor to State, Mantra Dave (center) qualified for the IHSA competition in 2019 with Zemans coaching.

When Zeman brought her half-decade of coaching experience to Community’s speech team in 2018, she transformed a team that hadn’t qualified for State in a decade into one that made the trip every year. 

In the decade prior, Community speech was “passed around a lot,” Zeman said, with the team competing under four different coaches—Ms. Brittany Bergmann, Ms. Kaitlyn Baez, Ms. Tara Pendleton and Ms. Lauren Chessare.

Under volatile leadership, the team didn’t have “a whole lot of buy-in or interest,” Community speech alum and State qualifier Mantra Dave (’20) said. 

“The big concern was a lack of enthusiasm or engagement around the program,” Dave said. 

But when Zeman brought her years of experience to Community, the enthusiasm returned. There was no more settling for ‘good enough’ with Zeman as coach, Dave said. 

The team was expected to go all-in. 

“[Zeman] was always adamant about looking to the next thing that I could improve,” Dave said.

Even after Dave’s junior-year State qualification, Dave said, Zeman wouldn’t let him settle—always encouraging him to read more, keep up with more news and reach further in his strongest events: Extemporaneous and Impromptu speaking. 

Although he had always been driven to improve, Dave said, “the majority of the credit” for his highest speech honor—fifth place in Extemporaneous at the 2020 IHSA State Finals—goes to Zeman.  

“[Zeman] was certainly a driving factor in that progress,” Dave said, due to “her consistent feedback and the support and structure that she provided.”

After years of failing to advance a Speech competitor to State, Mantra Dave (center) qualified for the IHSA competition in 2019 with Zeman’s coaching. (Ms. Jackie Zeman)

From coaching in Eureka to judging competitors like Dave on the Illinois speech circuit, Zeman’s half-decade of experience made that feedback come naturally. 

“Speech is a very difficult thing to coach if you don’t know what’s going on,” Zeman said. “The fact that I had come in here with five years of experience was something.”

After announcing her resignation at the end of the ’22 season, struggles to find a coach with this level of experience brought Zeman back to the team she has “put [her] literal blood, sweat, and tears into” for one more year, she said. 

For the several State qualifiers Community speech has produced since Dave, Zeman’s return was crucial. 

Ciara Wallace (’23), who qualified for State in Poetry Reading for two consecutive seasons, said she was glad the conclusion of her own speech career coincided with her coach’s. 

“I don’t think I could do speech without Zeman,” Wallace said. 

As other coaches and assistants came and went, Zeman remained a constant for Wallace and the team, the cheerleader who wanted to see her students passionate about their events. 

By helping Wallace find the confidence to step outside of her comfort zone within poetry, the speech vet said, Zeman “pushed [her] beyond what [she] thought was the limit.”

As a sophomore, State qualifier Anushi Kiribamune (’25) received that same push from Zeman in Oratorical Declamation. 

While participants typically recite a TED Talk or commencement speech in the event, Kiribamune said, Zeman’s wide knowledge of English literature allowed her to take a different approach—excerpting chapters from a book—that Kiribamune and young audience members could resonate with. 

“[Zeman] incorporates modern culture, understands what’s happening in society and relates to us on a different level than a normal teacher would,” Kiribamune said. 

Zeman’s effort to relate to her students, 2022 Sectional Champion and State qualifier Nikitha Philip (’25) said, was evident in and out of speech practice. 

Philip’s piece this season stressed the importance of correctly pronouncing a person’s name, a topic that has impacted her throughout years of mispronounced “Nikithas.”

Zeman put in overtime on the speech, at times making edits at 10 p.m. after her already-long days at school, Philip said. 

But what really impacted Philip was the text she received one morning as Zeman subbed for an unfamiliar class. 

When Zeman texted Philip asking how to pronounce several names on her roster, Philip said, her commitment to the speech topic and her students’ identities was clear. 

“One of my favorite things about Zeman is that she’s always trying to be better,” Philip said. “She’s always trying to find some way she can improve and be more inclusive of everyone.” 

That mentality, Zeman’s willingness to embrace individualism, has reaped more than trophies, shiny tokens of the team’s achievements.  

It’s meant that Community competitors can now walk into a tournament—from the first competition of the season to the State floor—with honor.

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Where Community once went unnoticed as the team that lagged behind crosstown speech powerhouse U-High, Zeman has spent her transformative career narrowing that gap under an intangible but very real goal: “I want people to respect us.” 

“Now,” Zeman said, “we walk into tournaments and people are like, ‘Oh shoot, NCHS is here.’”

The talent behind that reputation has earned Community its half-decade of qualifications for State, the tournament the team couldn’t walk into at all just five years prior—let alone with pride. 

But now, Community’s State competitors are placing alongside students who receive daily instruction in classes specifically designed for speech.

“Being able to compete against the people who I know were working on this for so much longer than I was,” Philip said, “more than 30 minutes once a week…made me feel like my voice does have power.” 

For Wallace, the Peoria Civic Center event remains the proudest, most inspiring experience of her speech career. 

“[State] was just filled with dedicated and passionate individuals who would stop at nothing until they got what they wanted,” Wallace said. 

A description that, beyond Wallace herself, could easily be applied to any other vet on Community Speech. 

The ’23 seniors, who were freshmen Zeman’s second year as coach, have had “a major influence on the success” of the program since her takeover, Zeman said. 

From breakthrough advances on the IHSA circuit to providing leadership as the only students with in-person tournament experience following COVID, Zeman said, she and the seniors “grew together.” 

The presence of other passionate members who have been along for this full growth process, Wallace said—like two-time State qualifiers Avani Rai (’23) and Riya Prasade (’23)—made her last competition with Zeman her favorite.

“All these people have similar interests,” Wallace said, “and we’re all working towards something. I always knew there was meaning to it, but in that moment, I was very appreciative of it, way more appreciative than I’ve ever been in my entire life.” 

For her time with Zeman and fellow competitors to be over is “heartbreaking,” Wallace said, “because speech is a big part of [her].”

Photo Courtesy of: (Ms. Jackie Zeman)
Assistant coach Ms. Eden Henrikson (right) will take over the Communitys Speech team as head coach for the 2023-24 season.
Photo Courtesy of:

But while the competition marked the bittersweet end to a years-long speech journey for Zeman and this season’s three senior State qualifiers—Wallace, Rai, and Prasade—the journey is far from over for Community.

After State qualifications from Philip and Kirimabune as sophomores and Pranathi Ganti as a junior, Zeman said she has “high hopes” for the program’s future. 

“The excitement that going to State brings is something that is going to carry over…,” Zeman said. “They know the expectation level, and they’re going to bring that to the new students and the underclassmen.”

Returning alongside those stand-out students is assistant coach Ms. Eden Henrikson, who will bring her experience in dramatic events to her role as head coach for the ’24 season. 

“I see that [Henrikson] really want to put her all into this,” Kirimabune said, “and I can’t wait to see what she’ll do with it.” 

Still, Kirimabune said, Zeman’s sense of humor will be missed. 

“When we lose [Zeman],” Kirimabune said, “we lose a certain flair that we have when it comes to joke telling and the political comedy aspect.”

The jokes, the riding that “little white bus” to invites, the memories, will be hard to top. 

Successes like Rai’s sixth place State finish or Wallace’s and Prasade’s two consecutive State trips will be hard to top.

But Zeman’s final chapter as speech coach was filled with optimism.   

“It was definitely nice to see, this is the program that I’ve built,” Zeman said, “and these kids are going to continue to do great.”

Assistant coach Ms. Eden Henrikson (right) will take over the Community’s Speech team as head coach for the 2023-24 season. Photo Courtesy of: (Ms. Jackie Zeman)