PCHS debaters rise to challenge of unusual season

Miners have set the bar ‘unbelievably high’

Donna Matturro McAleer and Bari Nan Rothchild
Submitted on behalf of PCHS debate team
The Park City High School speech and debate team had a successful season despite challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Anna Williams

Honing critical reasoning, persuasion and communication skills in a competitive scholastic environment, the Park City Miners speech and debate team met the challenges of a remote season, taking top honors at many local, regional, state and national tournaments.

Head coach Gavin Serr referred to the season’s success as a team effort, with 40 students competing in both novice and varsity squads.

“Debate is about fostering empathy through human interaction — which is particularly challenging in a season that was fielded completely online,” Serr said. “Our students outdid themselves creating connections among the team and with their competitors. By using their newly found Zoom environment to make our schedule more flexible, our program was able to improve our recruitment and retention. Our seniors helped build a program to make debate accessible to all students.”

Online tournaments presented unique opportunities, including an increase in participation in national-circuit tournaments. Yet connectivity issues, which delayed rounds, also imposed a different competition style on a number of events.

“It limited the rate at which you could speak, making progressive — high level, very fast, theory-based — arguments harder to convey,” said senior Will Efrusy, a team co-captain. “It forced us to adjust our strategy.”

In live tournaments, eye contact, gestures and body-language help establish credibility with the judges, but virtual tournaments focused heavily on speaking skills.

The team’s season-long collection of wins culminated in championship successes. Seniors Jack Gladson and Caroline Waldmann won all seven rounds to take the 5A state championship in policy debate; they also qualified for their second year at Tournament of Champions, a premier national championship tournament. Team co-captains Tom Perret and Will Efrusy will also compete in the TOC in April, hosted remotely by University of Kentucky. Serr noted that the Miners are the only Utah policy team to make it to eliminations rounds in TOC debates.

“Debating in a virtual format definitely changed the game,” Waldmann said. “Tournament entries peaked as teams from all over the nation were able to register debaters without incurring flight or hotel costs, making the average tournament significantly more competitive.”

Even as they relished their hard-fought victories, Waldmann and Gladson were wistful about the social and travel experiences of previous in-person seasons. Gladson first tried debate in middle school, and thought he left it there.

“I tried debate again halfway through freshman year, because most of my friends were already members of the team,” Gladson said. “I’ve stayed mainly for the social aspects as compared to the competitive parts of it — hanging out with my friends at practices, traveling to tournaments, staying in hotels.”

Waldmann added: “My favorite memories from debate are almost exclusively from the time our team typically spends after rounds exploring and prepping for the next day of competition together. This year, we lost this ability, so I hope this year’s incoming novices stick around to experience in-person tournaments next year!”

Junior Carly McAleer, state 5A Champion in Lincoln-Douglas, echoed the sentiment, noting that the connections fostered at in-person tournaments are critical to the experience.

“Through debate I get to develop relationships with people with diverse backgrounds and opinions which has helped me understand both sides of a topic,” McAleer said. “Being online, turning our cameras on and off, and muting creates a disconnect between debaters and judges. We had to work in different ways to try to create that connection.”

Assistant and LD special teams coach Aidin O’Brien noted the season was the most successful in PCHS Lincoln-Douglas history. He said McAleer’s performance was particularly strong, throughout the state tournament — and the season leading up to it.

“Carly won eight of nine rounds. But more impressive is that in quarterfinals, semifinals and finals, you have three judges casting ballots. She did not lose a single ballot in those rounds going 13 for 14 in the tournament,” O’Brien said. “In another PCHS LD first, Carly earned places in the semifinals in the five in-state tournaments she competed.”

During the first semester, the LD team focused on the national circuit.

“We set stretch goals for each tournament,” O’Brien explained, “Noam Levinsky, a junior, earned his way to the quarterfinals in three national qualifying tournaments and then qualified for nationals.”

This is the first year two PCHS Lincoln-Douglas debaters will compete on that national stage.

“Each practice is a cacophonous display of intellectualism in the finest form — no political economic dogma is unexplored by our team, and just about every possible competing case strategy is considered. Counterintuitively, these differences are one of our greatest assets,” Serr said.

The Miners also won two regional championships with Lance Rothchild, a senior, atop the podium in Oratory and the duo of senior Will Efusy and junior Jack Goodman in Public Forum.

“Every senior has demonstrated outstanding leadership for this team,” said Anna Williams, English and Latinos in Action teacher and assistant debate coach. “Tom Perret and Will Efrusy led the team as captains. Caroline Waldmann, Jack Gladson and Max O’Reilly have been mentors for our junior varsity and novice policy forum debaters. Lance Rothchild and Lindsay Miller served as leads for speech events. Isabella Crockett is a role model of persistence and positivity. Lucia Auerbach and Ylan Lockwood stepped up remotely. The seniors collectively have been the most driven and successful seniors in the school’s debate history. They have set the bar unbelievably high for the future.”

Additional state tournament accolades went to sophomores Natalie Best and Alex O’Brien, semifinals in public forum; Max O’Reilly, semifinals in oratory; Lindsay Miller, semifinals in impromptu; JT O’Reily, finals in Congress, following his second-place finish at region. Jack Allison and Cody Rutkwoski placed second in public forum at region. Notably, Anly Lockwood, a freshman who joined the LD team in late February, competed in the region tournament, going 2-1 to qualify for state.

“Anly went to the most competitive classification for LD at state, and made it to the quarterfinals in her second tournament ever,” O’Brien said.

Teamwide, students accrued points for the Miners with performances at both region and state: Brittney Mellin, Max Goldberg, Siclali Garcia, Andrea Vazquez, Emmie Lowsma, Henry Smith and Jose Hernandez competed in international and national extemporaneous speaking.

The public forum team included: Isabella Crockett, Michael O’Brien, Natalie Best, Alex O’Brien. Emma Stockwell, competed along with McAleer and Levinsky in Lincoln-Douglas. In speech disciplines Lila Stein and Arantza Pedraza competed in oratory and Grant Murray, Amber Howard and Kyle Cink in impromptu. Will McCurdy and Tyler Montzingo, first-time competitors, earned points for the Miners in national and foreign extemporaneous speaking.

Notably, Efursy, Waldmann, Perret, Gladson and O’Reilly were awarded the prestigious Academic All-American Award from the National Speech and Debate Association. Efursy is only the second person in school history to receive premier distinction. Gavin Serr was the first in 2017.

The debate season culminates in June, as public forum debaters Jack Goodman, Cody Rutkowski, Michael O’Brien and Jack Allison, along with Lincoln-Douglas debaters McAleer and Levinsky, will compete in nationals.


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