East High School’s debate team wins virtual state championship

Speech team wraps up win for third straight title

Ashley Schulz
Parker Bachelder competes in dramatic interpretation.

Ms. Kathryn Palmer, WTE Reporter Originally published Apr 29, 2020

Reprinted with permission

When Hernan Rodriguez woke up March 14, he was ready to debate.

Rodriguez, a sophomore member of East High School’s speech and debate team, had spent Friday night’s five-hour bus ride from Cheyenne to Green River with about 20 of his teammates in last-minute preparation for the Wyoming State Speech and Debate Tournament.

East had won the speech and debate competition for two years in a row. As of this week, 2020 is their third consecutive year to take the title, but not before an unexpected turn of events.

Rodriguez, who had not participated in speech or debate activities before this year, said that in the middle of their practice – right before they were about to head over to the tournament for the day – they got the news that the competition was canceled.

The in-person annual event, just like school, work and so many other daily activities, was canceled in an effort to adhere to social distancing guidelines and slow the spread of COVID-19.

“That was a depressing bus ride back home,” Rodriguez said. “But it ended up not being all bad. We got an extra month to study.”

After the cancellation announcement, the debate program from the University of Wyoming offered to host a virtual competition instead of skipping it altogether.

“I was surprised when they took me up on that offer,” said Matthew Liu, director of debate at the University of Wyoming. “I could very easily be wrong about this, but Wyoming is the only state that has taken their (debate) championship online. A reluctance to try something new seemed to be the dominant response” to how to handle debate competitions amid a pandemic.

But Liu was well-equipped to take the competition online. He’d already had a hand in hosting one of the first online college debate tournaments in the fall. The motivation then, he said, was equity.

“One of my first thoughts when I moved here was that because of our geographic isolation I couldn’t put together the travel schedule for everyone – there just weren’t enough tournaments close by,” Liu said.

Using a mix of live video conferencing and recordings, Liu said, “it was largely a successful experiment,” and he was able to pretty quickly salvage the high school debate tournament.

During the six-week delay before the new competition date, Liu posted practice material online. The students from East took full advantage of it, but it took some getting used to.

“The nature of public speaking is to be in a room with an audience,” said Marcus Viney, the head debate coach at East. “But there were some silver linings. I think kids did some new critical thinking we weren’t aware of, like how they are being perceived on screen.”

Whether the competition is in-person or over a Wi-Fi connection, East’s speech and debate team has clearly developed a recipe for success.

Viney, who has coached the team for the past six years, credits it to “good kids being really excited about doing what they love. There’s a fire on the team that’s been around for a while.”

For Rodriguez, the sophomore who’s looking forward to joining the debate team again next year, public speaking has taught him self-confidence and that “if you put in work, you can get results.”
The national speech and debate tournament will take place in June, also virtually. Eighteen students from East’s team have qualified to participate.

The individual winners from East who competed in this past weekend’s tournament are as follows:
• Parker Bachelder, second, Drama (first 4A);
• Marcus Burrell, fourth, Humor (third 4A);
• Jonathan Christensen, semifinals, Oratory;
• Nevaeh Corbin, first, Duo (first 4A);
• Adrian Graham, first (close-out), Policy (first 4A);
• Kenneth Lever, first (close-out), Policy (first 4A);
• Saga McAllister, third, Poetry (second 4A), semifinals, POI (third 4A), and named “Wyoming State Speech and Debate Student Ambassador”;
• Alexa Mejia, first (close-out), Policy (first 4A);
• Haley Neisen, semifinals, Public Forum;
• Jayden Roccaforte, first, Humor (first 4A), and semifinals, Drama;
• Hernan Rodriguez-Ferreira, second, Lincoln Douglas (second 4A);
• Emma Rudell, first, Duo (first 4A);
• Dani Schulz, fourth, Drama (third 4A), and sixth, Poetry (third 4A);
• Mike Swidecki, first (close-out), Policy (first 4A);
• Justin Woolsey, semifinals, Humor;
• Rachel West, second, Poetry (first 4A), and sixth, POI (second 4A); and
• YuYu Yuan, first, Oratory (first 4A), and semifinals, Public Forum.