Slideshow | Reserve National Champs

Rituals team makes it two national runner-up finishes in three years for program

LOUISVILLE, KY. – The Tonasket FFA program has filled its “headquarters” – advisor and ag teacher Matt Deebach’s classroom – with so many banners that the walls and ceiling are running out of space. None has been more prized than the national runner-up banner won by the 2011 Parliamentary Procedure team.

For a small, out-of-the-way school like Tonasket, that might have seemed like a peak of success that could never be matched.

Well, that banner is going to have some company.

The Tonasket FFA’s Rituals team, which as freshmen claimed the state championship last spring, earned Reserve National Champion honors at the FFA National Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, last week, outperforming all but a team from San Luis Obispo, California. The seven sophomores – including one who moved away over the summer, and another who didn’t join the team until after the state convention – overcame some first round jitters to deliver the performance of a lifetime in the championship round of six national title contenders, missing out on the overall national title by the closest of margins.

And when the tallying of individual scores was complete, Tonasket’s Rade Pilkinton was awarded the national title for individual performance.

Pilkinton, Jordan Hughes, Jenna Valentine, Rachel Silverthorn, Sammie Earley, Madison Bayless and Janelle Catone weren’t sure if they qualified for the final round and had to wait for several hours before the final six out of 23 (and two out of their pool of seven) were announced. It was a long and uneasy wait, which is saying something considering there was at least one case of nervous pre-performance vomiting to kick off the day.

But given their chance in the finals, the group shone in what is also referred to as the novice version of the Parliamentary Procedure event for underclassmen.

“They were nervous at the start, but they calmed down as they got going,” Deebach said. “They missed some of the oral questions in the opening round but had a great performance other than that. They did great on the debate (portion of the competition), and did excellent on the tests.”

The team had to run through the competition twice: first in the flight round, and then in the final round of six national title contenders.

Tonasket’s flight also included teams from Virginia, Louisiana, Indiana, Florida, Arizona and Oregon. But one of the strongest parts of their repertoire, the oral questioning, didn’t go as well as anticipated. With only two of the seven teams advancing there was no margin for error.

“I was very nervous about not making the finals, because I know how close it is,” Deebach said. “The difference between first and third is so tiny, and I didn’t know any of their other scores. I just new what I’d seen. I was definitely more nervous than with the Parli team (two years ago) – those kids had all the oral questions right.”

As it turned out, Tonasket had excelled in the other parts of the competition, more than making up for the missed oral questions.

“We beat the next closest team to us on the written tests by 20,” Deebach said. “But we didn’t know that until later. Sammie had the second-highest written test score. Opening those (scoresheets) up, I was like a kid opening a present.”

Deebach wasn’t the only one unsure about making the finals.

” I honestly could not believe we made it to finals because we did not do very good in the preliminary round,” Pilkinton said. “I would say finals was a lot less nerve-racking because we only had to wait 30 minutes rather than the couple hours in the preliminary round (to find out how they finished). We had less time to think about things.”

” When it was time to hear the announcements of the preliminary round, (we) walked into the room and sat down,” Catone said. “We all held hands and bowed our heads. The announcer was getting ready to announce the final six teams and we were freaking out. ‘Washington’ was the first team announced and our team raised our hands and screamed.”

“It was the best feeling in the world,” Silverthorn said. “We were more excited then than about getting second in the nation.”

The primary goal, of course, was to win the national championship. Valentine, for one, did her best to convince the team to expect the best.

“I did have a goal: it was to be the national champions,” she said. “I knew if we worked hard and kept our head in the game we could do it. Remember (from talking about the state finals last May), it’s never ‘If we make it into the final round,’ it’s ‘When.’

“I was always right until now, and I was just off by a hair. It helps to stay positive. But also the experience was amazing; I had done something beyond my dreams.”

Reaching the final round of six, took a lot of the pressure off. With that achieved, the Tonasket team’s performance in the finals was much more what what they had hoped for.

“The final round felt like any other run we have done,” Hughes said. “The only difference was in the holding room and getting to talk to the other teams from other states, and making new friends.”

“After the first run I was like, I just want to make it to finals,” said Bayless, whose older sister Hayley was on the 2011 Parli Pro team. “When we made it to finals I was all for getting first, but then we watched California’s run. (After that) all that was going through my head was second place. That is what I wanted to get and it happened! “

The younger Bayless had another goal as well.

“I wanted to do just as good as my older sister,” she said, “and I did just that. I think we both get equal bragging rights, although I might get a little more because I made it to nationals my freshman year and she made it her senior year. I just wanted to share the same experience as my sister did and now we get to share it together.”

For Bayless, a mid-summer move to Connell complicated things. Since the FFA “season” runs through the calendar year she was still considered part of the Tonasket team, but had to do a lot of practicing on her own, as well as a number of trips back to Tonasket to work with the rest of the group.

It was also an interesting ride for Earley, who was added to the team in the Rituals advisor’s role, which at the state level was filled by Deebach.

“At our state level it’s a six-person competition, but at the national level it’s seven,” Deebach said. “At state, the advisor doesn’t do anything but read off questions. But at the national level they do the whole event like everyone else. I’m sure they’ll be changing that in the future.”

Earley, who was part of another Tonasket Rituals team at state, said it took some time to feel like she was part of the rest of the group.

“It was hard at first because I felt out of place,” she said. “But I was dedicated enough to the team to where I got comfortable and tried my hardest.”

Ryan Pilkinton, Rade’s father and a longtime math teacher and coach at Tonasket High School, was one of several family members that made the trip to Louisville. He said he currently has five of the seven kids in class, and was wrapped up in the competition in all three of those roles.

“The mental toughness those kids displayed was really remarkable,” he said. “To perform they way they did, at this level, with judges hanging on every word, it’s hard to describe.

“I was wound up so tight. I coached in a state championship football game, and I was coaching baseball when we went to the regional finals. I was more wound up for this than for any sporting event. … Part of it was that it was my kid, and part of it is you can’t do much other than sit and watch. I can’t imagine doing what they did when I was 15. The looks on their faces when they knew they were in the top two were priceless.”

As for Rade’s national title?

“I didn’t see it coming,” Ryan Pilkinton said. I’m really happy and proud of him. He’s highly competitive and motivated. he has a knack for being able to perform on the spot, and frankly I don’t know where he gets that from.”

” I didn’t even know that there was an individual national championship,” Rade said. “When I heard about it I just figured that some other kid from another state would get it, but when they said the person was from Washington State I kind of had hope it would be me. It was almost surreal when they called out my name.”

“Matt deserves a ton of credit,” Ryan Pilkinton said of Deebach. “Without his guidance and the time he puts into this, none of this happens. We need to make sure his efforts are recognized. There’s something working here, for sure.”

Hearing Deebach tell it, it was the time and work the seven super sophs put in that made the difference.

“After the kids won state I had them write down their goals,” he said, noting that the bar set by the team two years ago didn’t hurt the motivation aspect. “They wanted to make the finals. They see it, they want to be it. It’s really been neat to see them work so hard, follow through to achieve their aspirations and then get the reward.”


“It was almost surreal when they called out my name. I still haven’t fully accepted the fact that I won a national title.”

Rade Pilkinton, individual national champion

“The final round was crazy. There were so many people watching us, but I didn’t feel pressured. “

Rachel Silverthorn


“When our chairman, Jordan, rapped the gavel to start the presentation my stomach filled with butterflies. I was worried I would fumble my words and mess up my part. The butterflies were just there to ensure me that it meant i wanted to do well. And that we did.”

Janelle Catone


“(Advisor Matt Deebach’s) reaction didn’t only last that day … It lasted to rest of the week. He would start laughing out of the middle of no where and he would tell us how proud he was.”

Madison Bayless


“Mr. Deebach had given us a little pep talk before each round just to focus, do our best, and have fun. But all throughout this week he had given us pep talks not only about competition, but life lessons I will remember forever.”

Jenna Valentine


“It was hard at first because I felt out of place, but I was dedicated enough to the team to where I got comfortable and tried my hardest.”

Sammie Earley, who didn’t join the team until after the state finals


“I honestly was much less nervous than state. (Matt) Deebach told us that we can’t get any better now, so just do you best. There were no nerves left.”

Jordan Hughes


“This is two totally different groups of kids in different events from the same little town. To pull this off at this level is just really cool.”

FFA Advisor Matt Deebach, on leading two teams to 2nd place finishes at nationals