Despite its pandemic-related challenges, 2020–2021 was a banner year for the Rowland Hall debate team, which embraced the sport's virtual format to excel in both individual and team events—including the state tournament, where they won the title of 3A Speech & Debate Champions for the first time in the school’s history.
“It's been a historically challenging year for all schools, but we turned it into a historically successful one,” said coach Mike Shackelford.
Rowland Hall competed virtually in more than 40 local and national events in 2020–2021—more than double the events in a non-pandemic year—including the Utah Debate Coaches Association tournament, the most prestigious local regular-season tournament, in November, where the team won the sweepstakes award for the top school, and the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) state tournament in March, where the team won the championship title.
Debating at the state tournament was a great opportunity to bond as a team after a year of separation, and winning the championship wouldn't have been possible without the dedication from each member.—Emery Bahna, class of 2022
Earning the state trophy is an especially impressive feat for Rowland Hall, a small school that plays up one classification level and has, in previous years, been unable to assemble a large enough team to be in the running for the state title, due to tournament timing, travel, and other event-related challenges. Team size matters at state because while all students compete for individual titles, their performances also count toward a school’s overall score: students who place in the top 25 percent of an event earn their schools five points (a “Superior” rating), and points descend until the bottom 25 percent, which earns no points. While Rowland Hall has long won individual championships, its previous rosters of 12 to 15 students meant the team had to take zeros in categories they didn't enter. Thanks to this year’s virtual format, however, which made it easier to participate, they could finally set their sights on the championship.
“The whole team came together to conduct research, participate in practice debates, and share information about our opponents,” said junior Emery Bahna, who, with junior Mahit Dagar, took first place in the UHSAA Public Forum event. “Debating at the state tournament was a great opportunity to bond as a team after a year of separation, and winning the championship wouldn't have been possible without the dedication from each member.”
Mike agreed, noting that he views that dedication as the students’ way to balance a year in which they were unable to enjoy normal aspects of debate, like socials, bus rides, and even being in the same room during final rounds to root for each other. “There was a real commitment to achieve something collectively,” he said.
This they did, together earning a final tournament score of 122 points. Second-place school Providence Hall, the 2020 state champion, finished with 74 points.
“We nearly lapped the field,” said Mike. “The state championship reflected our collective desire and commitment to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Winning state was a product of 25 students rallying for a cause, and each doing their part.”
Below are the top individual championship performances at the UHSAA tournament, which contributed to the state title:
- Seniors Sophie Dau and Maddy Frech took first place in Policy, an event in which teams advocate for or against a policy change resolution, for their proposal for criminal justice reform. Three other teams—seniors Auden Bown and Ty Lunde, sophomores Zachary Klein and Micah Sheinberg, and sophomores Ruchi Agarwal and Layla Hijjawi—went undefeated in Policy, giving them a co-championship.
- Sophomore Ane Hernandez took first place in the Impromptu Speaking event, which requires debaters to prepare and deliver five-minute speeches on random topics, with only one to two minutes of preparation. Sophomores Anna Hull and Maile Fukushima were also finalists in this event, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively.
- Junior Samantha Lehman finished in first place in National Extemporaneous Speaking, an event in which debaters are given a domestic affairs question and have 30 minutes to research, write, and deliver seven-minute speeches.
- Juniors Emery Bahna and Mahit Dagar took first place in Public Forum, an event that includes short speeches interspersed with three-minute crossfire sections, on the topic of the pros and cons of the Space Force; this dynamic duo also qualified to the national Tournament of Champions and will compete at the National Speech & Debate Tournament in June. Senior Hattie Wall and junior Julia Graham, as well as juniors Ella Houden and Kit Stevens, closed out the top three spots, giving them a co-championship. Juniors Casey Maloy and Lizzie Carlin finished fifth.
- Sophomore Maddie Carlin took second place in Student Congress, a competition in which students lead and participate in a simulation where they debate different pieces of national legislation.
- Freshman Zac Bahna took third place in Foreign Extemporaneous Speaking, an event in which debaters are given a foreign affairs question and have 30 minutes to research, write, and deliver seven-minute speeches.
- Freshman Marina Peng took fifth place in Lincoln-Douglas, a solo debate event in which she spoke on the ethical necessity of universal child care.
Congratulations, debaters, on an impressive year!
Update October 29, 2021: This month, debate coach Mike Shakelford received a letter from J. Scott Wunn, executive director of the National Speech & Debate Association, notifying him that Rowland Hall earned the 2020–2021 Leading Chapter Award in the Great Salt Lake (UT) District. Out of 3,000 member schools nationwide, Rowland Hall is one of only 108 to receive this award.
"This coveted honor, based on student participation throughout the school year, is the highest recognition your school can receive from the National Speech & Debate Association. Only the top school in accumulated members and degrees per district earns this designation each year, and each school must wait at least five years before being eligible again," the letter read. "Your award reflects 725 members and degrees over 10 years. In that time, several hundred students have been taught communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration skills through speech and debate. The Leading Chapter Award serves as an indication of your relentless dedication to these students and to speech and debate education. Your efforts truly embody our mission to empower youth."
For Coach Mike and his students, this award is indeed the cherry on top of a fantastic season—as well as a powerful example of why our debate program has been recognized as one of the strongest in the Intermountain West.
"This is a special award because it reflects sustained excellence, longevity, and collective effort," said Mike. "Unlike many individual tournament achievements, this award recognizes the contributions of every single debater at Rowland Hall over the last five years. Every practice speech, every article researched, every creative argument idea; it all adds up!"