When the 79th annual State FFA Convention met earlier this month in Corpus Christi, a Waxahachie student set herself apart from the crowd

Julia Bunch, a rising sophomore at Waxahachie High School, beat out the best upperclassmen in the state in her event, taking first place in the state in the soil and water stewardship public speaking contest, which is open to high school ag science students interested in conservation.

Designed to broaden “students’ interest and knowledge of conservation,” the contest requires students to consult with both their teachers and their local soil and water conservation district, according to a press release.

The daughter of Ron Bunch and Stephanie Knight, Bunch worked diligently for several months to prepare for the contest, Waxahachie FFA advisor Mike Morgan and former Waxahachie FFA advisor Mark McClure said.

Bunch began working on the project in early March when McClure recruited her to compete, he said.

“Julia is very intelligent, a hard worker and a self-motivator, and if anybody’s got those three qualities you can really do something with them,” McClure said.

“It was totally out on a limb,” Bunch said, noting it was her first year to compete in the contest.

Once recruited, Bunch researched conservation and interviewed officials at the Ellis Soil and Water Conservation District, Morgan said, adding that she then worked on her speech and prepared for the question-and-answer portion of the contest.

Competitors in the soil stewardship contest don’t just give a speech, Morgan said. Instead, they have to write and “perfectly memorize” their speech, a copy of which is mailed in three weeks prior to the contest and judged for style and content. On the day of the contest, students must perform their eight-minute speech verbatim, which is checked by the judges against the submitted copy. The contestants then go through a five-minute question-and-answer session, during which the judges ask questions and evaluate the answers based upon students’ factual veracity and delivery.

Adding to the pressure is that the contest is open to the public, with students competing in front of an audience.

For her speech, Bunch spoke about the local district’s practices, what urban and rural residents can do to further preservation efforts and about biofuels such as BioWillie, Willie Nelson’s brand of biodiesel.

“I knew she would do well, but I didn’t know she would do that well,” McClure said, adding that Bunch is the first student he’s had to take first place in a speaking event at state and that “it’s kind of just unheard of for a freshman to win that soil stewardship contest.”

“She was probably the only freshman in the top 20,” he said. “She was up there with the big boys.”

Morgan added that Bunch “is an outstanding student. … She worked her tail off on this.”

Bunch said several people helped her, including McClure, Morgan and her classmate and fellow public-speaking competitor, Meagan Klansek.

“I want to thank Mr. McClure who helped me write it (her speech), research it and think up questions, and Mr. Morgan who stepped in, helped me out and made me feel right at home with him,” Bunch said, explaining that Morgan took over when McClure left the district to take a job with the ag program in Cleburne.

Bunch adds that “doing it with someone else made it so much easier,” explaining that she and Klansek - who competed in the Junior Prepared Public Speaking Contest - “helped each other be less nervous.”

Klansek earned a trip to the state contest with her speech about combating bio-terrorism, competing against other then-freshmen from around Texas.

Just making it to the state contest is an accomplishment in and of itself, Morgan noted, explaining that earning the trip is tough.

“Our district is composed of 20 schools and you have to get out of district to make it to area, where you compete against the top students from 95 schools,” Morgan said, adding there are more than 1,000 FFA chapters across the state and only the top 20 students in Texas compete at state.

While Klansek didn’t make the top 10, “we were certainly proud of her just making it down there,” Morgan said, adding that she chose a difficult topic to compete with.

“One of the problems is that it opens the question session wide-open,” Morgan said, “but she handled herself pretty well on her questions.”

“We’re extremely proud of these two young ladies and, because of their youth, we’re looking for a lot of good things to come from them,” Morgan said, with McClure adding, “Whatever these girls do in life, they’re going to succeed.”

“They’re shining stars,” McClure said.

During the course of the competitions, Bunch earned $1,500 in college scholarship funds, including $1,000 at the state level.

The Soil and Water Stewardship Public Speaking Contest is a partnership between the Texas FFA, the Vocational Agriculture Teacher’s Association of Texas, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and the Association of Texas Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

E-mail Anthony at Anthony.Trojan@waxahachiedailylight.com