Despite Unfamiliarity of Competing from Home, DA Speech and Debate Team Excels in Online Tournaments

When senior members of Durham Academy’s speech and debate team left campus for spring break, they weren’t sure if they’d ever compete again. With the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic hanging over them, it seemed unlikely that they’d be able to compete in culminating in-person tournaments, even if they could ultimately return to campus.

“Before we went on spring break, we felt like we may lose everything,” recalled Crawford Leavoy, director of DA’s speech and debate program. “Especially with this senior class. The 2020 senior class is going to walk away the most decorated class possibly ever, as a group in speech and debate. … It was really disappointing.”

But as the public health picture became clearer — making in-person competition an impossibility — organizers began working toward moving important end-of-year tournaments online. DA’s speakers and debaters have now competed in and earned a slew of honors at two virtual tournaments: the Tournament of Champions (typically hosted by the University of Kentucky) and the Tarheel East District Tournament (which would have been held in Fayetteville). Several members of the team will also compete virtually in the National Speech & Debate Tournament (originally planned for Albuquerque, New Mexico) in June. 

At their core, speech and debate events are conversations, Leavoy said — and just like conversations that typically happen in classrooms or board rooms but have moved online in recent weeks, speech and debate conversations are well-suited for the virtual world. 

“We have a great coaching staff that told the kids, ‘Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ You don’t just look at this and say, well, if I don't get to go to ‘blank,’ it’s not worth it,” he said. “Because the purpose of the activity is so much more than the ability to go to a different city. The purpose of the activity is to have scholarly conversations in a competitive atmosphere, to work on critical thinking and strategy and topic literature.”

The threat that COVID-19 posed to the tournaments was “overwhelming,” said senior Esme Longley, who, along with her public forum debate partner Mac Hays, also a senior, has been working toward the competitions for four years.

“The Tournament of Champions is this tournament that you have to earn several bids to get to, and it was going to be the pinnacle of our debate career,” she said. 

“But as soon as we started debating [practice] rounds online … it was actually really fun for us. It was a way to pass the time without falling into the boredom of everyday quarantine,” Hays added. “But it also showed me that the virtual format for these styles of debate worked much better than you would expect — much better than I expected, certainly. All was not lost. There was still a lot to salvage.”

Instrumental in bringing the tournaments online has been Leavoy, who serves as chair of the Tarheel East District and worked on the Tournament of Champions (TOC) tabulation team for Public Forum debate, which handled tabulation and logistics for the virtual tournament. The tournaments ran on specialized tabulation software and Zoom. More than 1,000 students competed in the TOC from nearly 40 states and four countries.

While the shift to an online environment was challenging for organizers like Leavoy, it was also quite a transition for many of the competitors, as Wi-Fi woes and audibility issues could prove costly. Students competing in speech events had to cope with a huge change to the usual format; rather than live-performing every round, they submitted recorded performances (scroll down for links to performances).

“They've had to struggle with how to adapt. And at the same time, it's been hard as a coach,” Leavoy said. “You know, debate is full of both glee and pain. And it has been very hard to be on a video call and tell a senior this could be your last round of debate ever if you don't win. And suddenly you don't have the physical connection that we would have had, to reach out and just create that human connection by touching someone's shoulder or looking them dead in the eye.”

Despite those challenges, the DA competitors have found great success online so far. Three students placed in four events at the TOC (scroll down for full results). 

Competitors placed in 18 events at the Tarheel East District Tournament, where DA was recognized as winner of the Speech Sweepstakes, Debate Sweepstakes and Overall Tournament Sweepstakes. In addition, Longley was recognized as District Student of the Year (earning consideration for 2020 National Student of the Year) — partly in recognition of her commitment to inclusion in speech and debate.

Also earning recognition recently are Leavoy, who was named Tarheel Forensic League Coach of the Year, and assistant coach Jeff Welty, who was recognized as Tarheel Forensic League Assistant Coach of the Year.

For many students, the social aspect of speech and debate is a huge part of the appeal — and it’s difficult to replicate that in an online environment. 

“There were a lot of people we haven’t been able to see, and probably won’t see again who are friends from around the nation that we’ve made in debate, who we’d really hoped to see in person,” Hays said. “But that’s OK, we still are in contact with them and still have been able to do practice debates online with them.”

Longley said she’s missed spending time with younger DA team members, so she and fellow seniors hosted a movie night during which they all watched Netflix together. And they’ve been working to pass the torch to the younger students by introducing them to team members at other schools and hosting a novice round robin so the underclassmen could continue practicing from home.

Both Longley and Hays said they’re grateful to their coaches and organizers around the country for their work to hold the culminating tournaments in this unprecedented time.

“Debate has been one of the most fun activities of my entire life. It is so, so worth it on so many levels, not just education-wise, but it’s been one of the most fun things that I’ve done with my entire high school experience,” Hays said.

“I really appreciate our coaches doing their best to keep us moving forward. It’s been such a community for me all through high school, to be able to debate and not be really shy about expressing myself,” Longley said. “I’ve been so appreciative that everyone cares and wants to keep it moving forward, too.”

For Leavoy, there was never a question as to what was the right thing to do.

“We all do this because we recognize that we champion student voice, and to not try is to just say student voices aren’t worth it. That seems to be antithetical to the overall theme of what we try to do, both at Durham Academy but also in speech and debate.”

Tournament of Champions Results

  • Emily Donaldson ’20 was a Finalist (Top 12 of 114) in Congressional Debate
  • Annie Ma ’20 was a Semifinalist (Top 12 of 68) in Informative Speaking
  • Annie Ma ’20 was a Quarterfinalist (Top 24 of 105) in Original Oratory
  • Mukta Dharmapurikar ’22 was a Quarterfinalist (Top 24 of 80) in Extemporaneous Speaking

Also participating:

  • Jacob Palmer ’20 in Lincoln-Douglas Debate
  • Asia Crowley ’22 in Congressional Debate
  • Mac Hays ’20 & Esme Longley ’20 in Public Forum Debate – Gold Division
  • Matthew Chang ’21 & Daniel Park ’21 in Public Forum Debate – Silver Division

Qualified, but not participating:

  • Andrew Owens ’20 & Adriana Kim ’20 in Public Forum Debate – Gold Division
  • Bennett Dombcik ’20 in Lincoln Douglas Debate 

Tarheel East District Tournament Results

  • Bennett Dombcik ’20 was the District Champion in Lincoln-Douglas Debate
  • Chris Burkhard ’21 was 2nd Place in Lincoln-Douglas Debate
  • Jacob Palmer ’20 was 5th Place in Lincoln-Douglas Debate
  • Andrew Owens ’20 & Adriana Kim ’20 were District Champions in Public Forum Debate
  • Mac Hays ’20 & Esme Longley ’20 were 2nd Place in Public Forum Debate
  • Anna Brent-Levenstein ’21 & Emily Norry ’21 were 3rd Place in Public Forum Debate
  • Matthew Chang ’21 & Daniel Park ’21 were 4th Place in Public Forum Debate
  • Madeleine Genova ’20 was District Champion in Dramatic Interpretation 
  • Sierra Brown ’21 was 5th Place in Humorous Interpretation
  • Izzie Pierson ’21 was 6th Place in Humorous Interpretation
  • Annie Ma ’20 was District Champion in Informative Speaking
  • Mukta Dharmapurikar ’22 was District Champion in International Extemporaneous Speaking
  • Aamer Husain ’22 was 6th Place in International Extemporaneous Speaking
  • Annie Ma ’20 was District Champion in Original Oratory
  • Madeleine Genova ’20 was 2nd Place in Original Oratory
  • Sierra Brown ’21 was 5th Place in Programmed Oral Interpretation
  • Mukta Dharmapurikar ’22 was District Champion in United States Extemporaneous Speaking
  • Aamer Husain ’22 was 5th Place in International Extemporaneous Speaking
  • Durham Academy was recognized as the winner of Speech Sweepstakes
  • Durham Academy was recognized as the winner of Debate Sweepstakes
  • Durham Academy was recognized as the winner of  the Overall Tournament Sweepstakes 
  • Esme Longley ’20 was recognized as the Tarheel East District Student of the Year.  She follows Thomas Owens ’18 and Loften Deprez ’16 as Tarheel East District Students of the Year.

Tarheel East District Speech Performances

National Qualifiers to the 2020 NSDA National Tournament

  • Emily Donaldson – Congressional Debate
  • Asia Crowley – Congressional Debate
  • Vikram Agrawal – Congressional Debate
  • Izzi Gershon – Congressional Debate
  • Bennett Dombcik – Lincoln-Douglas Debate
  • Chris Burkhard – Lincoln-Douglas Debate
  • Andrew Owens & Adriana Kim – Public Forum Debate
  • Mac Hays & Esme Longley – Public Forum Debate
  • Anna Brent-Levenstein & Emily Norry – Public Forum Debate
  • Madeleine Genova – Original Oratory
  • Annie Ma – Original Oratory
  • Mukta Dharmapurikar – International Extemporaneous Speaking