USC debate team wins awards at national tournaments
The Upper St. Clair High School speech and debate team ended its season with 25 students qualifying for two national tournaments – a handful of whom took home awards – and the team being named a top 20 debate team in the nation.
Ben Edwards, director of forensics, said the speech and debate club he’s led for the last 16 years proves how important discourse can be for teenagers.
“They can give a speech about something so truly personal to them and they may not have had any other outlet to do that,” said Edwards, who also teaches history and economics at USC. “By the time they go through this organization for four years they have a whole army of friends, not just from Upper St. Clair but from a lot of the other schools in the area, that they can talk to and use as outlets. It’s a personal growth issue. The competition is absolutely secondary. I truly believe that.”
The team took 21 students to the National Catholic Forensic League competition in Louisville, Ky., from May 26-28. Then 14 students, many of whom also competed at NCFLs, trekked to Birmingham, Ala., for the National Speech and Debate Association competition from June 18-23. The NSDA tournament is where the team was named as a Debate School of Excellence, designating USC as a top 20 debate team in the nation.
The road to nationals wasn’t easy, though, as students had to compete and place well at regional competitions to qualify for both tournaments, which host thousands of students across the country. To prepare for the those competitions, the team practiced, as it does every year, three days a week after school and competes nearly every Saturday from October to April.
“Speech and debate is an activity that doesn’t really stop,” Edwards said. “It’s pretty much as soon as the season ends we start thinking of the pieces for next year.”
At NCFLs, two Panthers took home awards: Raahema Durrani finished second in the Lincoln-Douglas debate category, while Erik Warmbein placed seventh in the Dramatic Performance competition.
Durrani competed in 11 debates across the three days before falling, 3-2, in the national final round. She was only team member to reach the finals in either tournament. The topic was a philosophical debate about national security and to what extent the public had a right to know about it.
Durrani, who will be attending the University of Virginia in the fall, said the support from the rest of the speech and debate team was the most memorable part of the competition.
“The NCFL tournament was one of my favorite tournaments,” Durrani said. “I went in not expecting to do as well as I did, so it was definitely amazing to keep winning. The biggest part for me wasn’t the part that I made it to the finals; it was the fact that every round my team would watch me and come with me and come to all of the meetings where they would post the results. The support that I had from them was my favorite part and was more impactful than the award itself.”
For Warmbein, he got his idea for his dramatic performance from Edwards, who saw it done at a national tournament a decade ago. Warmbein performed a 10-minute version of a one-act play written by Anton Chekhov called, “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco.”
“I’ve been looking for a kid to give it to, and Erik was perfect for it,” Edwards said. “You have to pantomime everything, and you have to truly transport the audience.”
While Macey Kaplan and Arushi Kewalramani teamed up to finish in the top 50 in the Public Forum category at NCFLs, they placed even better at NSDAs a month later. The two teamed up, as they often do at competitions, to debate 13 rounds in three days and finish tenth overall.
The best aspect of debate, Edwards and several students said, is the learning process of understanding different viewpoints in an argument.
“The cool thing about all of the debate events, and one of the reasons why I really like it and why you see a lot of debaters go on to be successful in college and life, is because they have to write both cases,” Edwards said. “They can’t just pick and choose which side they fall on and argue and research that. They actually need to know both sides.”
Kaplan, who will be attending Washington University in St. Louis in the fall, said open-mindedness is what she’s gained from the speech and debate team.
“It’s taught me the value of discourse and opposition,” Kaplan said. “Don’t just surround yourself with people who agree with you because then you never develop. The most important thing I learned is not the fear opposition.”
Kewalramani, who will attend the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, said she learned more about herself through the debating.
“Looking back, I think we’ve all grown as people,” Kewalramani said. “All of my best friends are in this organization. I have everything in my high school career to thank this organization for.”
Kaplan and Kewalramani weren’t the only Panthers to perform well at NSDAs, as Caleb Troughtzmantz finished in the top 50 in the Lincoln-Douglas debate category and Yash Lahoti finished 14th in a supplemental extemporaneous debate. After Lahoti didn’t advance in his original event, he entered the supplemental extemporaneous competition, which had 1,300 participants – the largest amount Edwards has ever seen at a forensics competition.
“He didn’t get a cool trophy for all of his work like (the others), but certainly that was a herculean effort on his part,” Edwards said.
Lahoti debated 10 different rounds on topics ranging from free trade, to education, to mandatory minimum sentences with only 30 minutes to prepare. That’s where the team came into help.
“We had a whole room of kids sitting there the whole day from 10 a.m. until 8 at night, through two tornado warnings, just helping Yash prepare for his extemporaneous debate rounds,” Edwards said. “That’s kind of an example of how the whole thing is a team effort.”
Edwards’ favorite part of leading the speech and debate club is the inclusiveness of the group.
“There’s something for literally any kid who wants to sign up for speech and debate,” Edwards said. “If you’re a good actor or you love literature you can do prose, poetry, drama, humor, duo interpretation, politics or current events...there’s a place for (you). We take anybody.”