Park City High School debate team hits the national stage
Exposure to best competitors in the country inspires students to take next step
The Park City High School debate team completed a climb that was years in the making last school year when it argued its way to the Class 3A state championship.
This summer, some members of the team got a glimpse of the next challenge. Seven students traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, last month to participate in the National Speech & Debate Association’s annual National Tournament. There, they got to witness some of the best high school debaters in the country, giving them another goal to conquer.
“It’s amazing and inspiring to see the final rounds of these events at this level of tournament,” said Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson, the team’s coach and a teacher at PCHS. “You walk away changed because you see what’s possible. For the students, either it was, ‘Wow, I don’t think that’s a level I can ever get to,’ or even more important: ‘Wow, I think I can do that.’”
No Park City students neared the finals in their events, but all of them either finished with as many round wins as losses or narrowly missed entering the elimination rounds. Despite their success in Utah this year, it was clear from the start that the level of competition was unlike anything they’d faced in the regular season.
Adam Herbst, a key member of the state title-winning squad, for instance, admitted to feeling a little intimidated in the beginning. He and his team participated in an event called World Schools — which he had never competed in before — and lost the first few rounds. Eventually, though, Herbst’s team found its footing, ultimately putting up a strong showing.
He said the experience opened his eyes to an entirely different level of debate and also showed him new ways of approaching debate topics and opponents.
“We had done practice rounds beforehand, but I don’t think we got the full gist of it until we actually got there and were in a debate against other people,” he said. “But it was an amazing event. It was so much fun. I think it was great practice for us.”
Just a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine students from Park City High School’s debate squad even qualifying for the national tournament. There weren’t many students interested in joining the team when Ellsworth-Nielson took over the program, and wins were few and far between.
But within a few years, the team began getting stronger, eventually became a major player in the Utah debate scene and narrowly missed taking home the state title last year. Ellsworth-Nielson said the team’s evolution has been due to students taking ownership of the program, recruiting younger classmates to join, then building them into formidable debaters.
After another leap forward this year that saw the team cement its status as the best in Class 3A, she said it’s not inconceivable to think Park City students will soon establish their presence on the national stage.
“It’s exciting to see the sparkle in the eyes of a few of them who have said they can see themselves doing well at nationals,” she said. “A few of them have told me privately, ‘I want to be on that stage.’ I don’t put it past anyone once they decide they’ll do what it takes.”
More than state titles and the chance for eventual national recognition, though, Ellsworth-Nielson is most proud of how much the students are growing as individuals. The skills they’re gaining in debate, she said, translate to all areas of life and are preparing them for bright futures.
“All of them have other lives besides debate,” she said. “And I see these kids growing in all areas of their lives because debate. The trophies are just a byproduct. It’s the fact that kids are learning and that lives are changing in this program — that’s the reason I do this.”