The Asegami High School New Jersey Drama and Forensics League team, which competes with high schools from throughout the state in various rhetorical challenges, has the odds stacked against it. With no cash allocated to the group in the school budget, membership in the team - which requires its participants pay out of pocket to travel to tournaments - isn't cheap, and its roster is just half that of perennial NJDFL powerhouses Mainland Regional and Eastern Regional high schools.

But despite its handicaps, Absegami managed to qualify 14 - about half its members- for the state NJDFL championships at Raritan High School, with two of the 14 advancing to the final round of their respective competition. And while Absegami was not among the top five point-scorers at the event, adviser Chip Garrison said it was a satisfying culmination to a successful season for the team.

"I'm so pleased we had 14 kids get to that level," Garrison said. "We had two kids get into the final championship round to maybe be crowned a state champion, so I'm very proud of them."

To qualify for the state tournament, participants have to "final," or advance to the final round of their category, in one of six regional tournaments in the months leading up to the championship.

The students who competed for individual championships Feb. 23 were Erica Butterhof, Kirsten Wimberg, Megan Cantz, Aaron Sartorio, Malia Monk, Gabrielle Hughes, Josh Wescoat, Brandon Castillo, Sammy Hickman, Ashton Wagner, Colleen Garrison, Nicholas Hathaway, Isabelle Brown, Jess Schrading, Nathan Moore, Michael Moore and Saverio Turrano.

Wimberg placed fourth in persuasive speaking for her self-penned essay "Effects of Rape Culture," and Sartorio placed second in dramatic monologue for his performance of a soliloquy from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

To final, Wimberg and Sartorio had to score in the top five in their category by a panel of impartial judges in the initial round. They performed their pieces a second time to earn their ultimate placement.

Sartorio said it came as a surprise to him when he heard he had advanced.

"I didn't think I was going to final at all," Sartorio said. "I looked at it, and I ran back into (Absegami's section) screaming, and I just started jumping for five minutes."

Because of its similarities to performing in a play, many of those on Absegami's NJDFL team are also members of its drama club, known as the Emanon Players. Wimberg, who has a lead role in the school's production of "Seussical," which runs March 8-10 at Absegami, said receiving constructive criticism from the panels she has performed before on the NJDFL circuit has helped her improve as an actress.

The experience has also been valuable in that it has given her an opportunity to meet countless kids from across the state who are as passionate about performing as she is, Wimberg said.

"I've made so many friends," Wimberg said. "You just meet these people and they're just like you, and they're just so fantastic."

When not performing themselves, Sartorio and the others toured the campus, watching other top competitors in events including impromptu speaking and comedy monologue. Seeing the best of the best in the state was an inspiration, Sartorio said.

Wimberg, Butterhof and Cantz, who graduate this summer, have put in their final performances on the NJDFL circuit, and Sartorio leads a talented group of returners looking to improve on this season's performance.

With this year's final under his belt, Sartorio said he's already eagerly awaiting next season.

"I'm so excited for next year, I actually, I literally got off of finals and was like, 'OK, what do I want to do next year? What am I thinking about?'" Sartorio said.

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