When Rowland Hall debaters gathered to defend their two-time state title at the 2023 3A tournament at Ogden High School in March, they weren’t facing an easy challenge.
First, as title defenders, the team had a target on their backs. They were also up against a formidable 19 schools, all of which are larger than Rowland Hall, as the debate team plays up a classification level (meaning our students compete in 3A, rather than 2A, to access more events, including Policy, the school’s flagship event). However, the team felt confident, not least because of the changes they had put into place in the 2020–2021 season and that continued to guide them over this most recent debate season.
“Three years ago, we expanded our goals and expectations,” explained Mike Shackelford, Rowland Hall’s head debate coach. Mike said that online debate during the pandemic greatly shifted the team’s approach to state. Motivated by the isolation of online competitions and distance learning, they chose to compete as a collective unit, rather than individually, that year. “We had always tried to win individual titles,” said Mike, “but had never set our sights on competing as a 30-person roster across 10 different events.”
And when they did, they claimed the school’s first-ever state debate victory, solidifying the collective-approach strategy, which they’ve continued to hold themselves to, even though it is often more difficult to pull off as it requires a deeper commitment from debaters, who must remain flexible, push the boundaries of their comfort zones, and even take on multiple events to make the Winged Lions competitive. But it works: the strategy paid off again in 2022, and for a third time this spring (complete with a new overall point record).
“We continued to demand the most from each other, working hard and flexing our skills across different topics and formats,” said Mike; these topics included immigration, universal healthcare, artificial intelligence, high-speed rail, the Supreme Court, and global security strategy (not to mention the impromptu topics and legislative proposals from Student Congress simulations). “Now we enjoy knowing that we have the depth, consistency, and talent to always be in a position to win,” said Mike.
Our third state victory solidifies the school as a premier program in the eyes of the larger debate community. Winning state one year is an achievement, but winning it three years in a row is a trend. It builds a narrative that Rowland Hall and debate success are synonymous.—Mike Shackelford, head debate coach
Senior Layla Hijjawi agrees with her beloved coach. As a five-year Rowland Hall debater (who will go on to debate for Harvard in fall 2023), Layla has had a front-row seat to the team’s incredible growth, and it’s clear she has a deep respect of her fellow debaters and the work they put in to hold onto the state title for three consecutive years.
“It’s easy to say, but it’s harder to actually comprehend how much work this team puts in to consistently remain nationally competitive and locally dominant,” said Layla. “These students are completing thesis-level research annually on unbelievably complex contemporary political issues. They’re spending upwards of 20 hours at tournaments on weekends, not to mention the hours of practice that lead up to those competitions. And they’re committing to an activity where they’re repeatedly told they’re wrong … for fun! That’s difficult, and it necessitates maturity and tenacity you wouldn’t generally expect from teenagers.”
And as a result of their hard work, the team has built on the name of Rowland Hall Debate, which is becoming more broadly known. While the school has long been known as a place to be if you want to go far in debate, the team’s third consecutive state victory is making more people in the debate world pay attention.
“Our third state victory solidifies the school as a premier program in the eyes of the larger debate community,” said Mike. “Winning state one year is an achievement, but winning it three years in a row is a trend. It builds a narrative that Rowland Hall and debate success are synonymous.”
This narrative definitely shapes how students view the program. Ninth grader Zion Wirthlin-Ngugi, who impressed in their first year on the team by competing in different events with different partners, and finishing in the top five in Student Congress at state, said they knew the reputation of Rowland Hall Debate before enrolling at the school last year, and that reputation played a major role in their choice to attend Rowland Hall. In their first year, Zion was determined to soak in as much knowledge as possible from their more experienced peers, citing an opportunity to debrief with seniors Anna Hull and Zachary Klein after Zion’s first national tournament at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, among their top memories of the year.
Looking back, Zion is grateful to have played a role in this year’s state victory. “I feel accomplished to have assisted the team by making it to finals,” they said, adding that they are impressed by the skill level of the nation’s top debaters and, as they move through the program, determined to be among those ranks. “It was a shocking experience to truly apprehend the depth and scope of the skilled debater realm, both from national competitors and in Rowland Hall,” said Zion. “I am looking forward to being amongst them in the future.”
For Layla, the Tournament of Champions—or TOC, to debaters—was a top memory of the year. (The team attended TOC in person this year for the first time since 2019. TOC was held online in 2020 and 2021, and the team didn't qualify in 2022.) It was a chance to, as Layla shared, “compete with some of the best debaters in the country and to join the legacy of Rowland Hall debaters who have attended the TOC,” and to enjoy the camaraderie built among teammates during these experiences—on planes, at dinner, or during late-night research sessions. These “little moments,” as Layla calls them, are a major part of what she will miss after graduation.
“It’s hard to find a group of kids where someone can make a joke about the state of political affairs in Croatia, and the entire room bursts into laughter,” she said. “We often jokingly call ourselves ‘the most distractible debate team in the nation,’ and I think that’s a testament to how well we get along and how many things we want to share with each other—albeit unrelated to the actual task at hand. I’ll miss that companionship dearly.”
Layla and her fellow seniors will also miss their coaches, Mike Shackelford and new recruit Zach Thiede. In fact, the entire team is quick to point out how the coaching staff’s support and dedication to the debate program has been absolutely essential to establishing Rowland Hall Debate as a premier program in the larger debate community. They especially recognize how Mike, who has coached the team since fall 2007, has created an environment that allowed the program to grow to its current level, and whose dedication to each debater has shaped them into, in Layla’s words, “the competitors, students, and people we are today.”
Our team is special because our collaboration is organic and we have many committed members. Mr. Shackelford, Zach Thiede, and upperclassmen to novices prioritize our learning, experience, and understanding of debate conceptually, which in turn improves performance.—Zion Wirthlin-Ngugi, class of 2026
“Mr. Shackelford is an incredible force on this team, and the Rowland Hall debaters and I couldn’t be more grateful for his dedication,” said Layla. “The Rowland Hall Debate team would cease to exist without the overwhelming amount of care and coaching Mr. Shackelford invests in the team. As I’ve mentioned, the debaters are incredible people, but it’s Mr. Shackelford who cultivates their talent and effort into a cohesive team that is capable of achieving results that lead to Tournament of Champions qualifications. It’s an honor and a privilege to be coached by him, and he deserves immense amounts of praise for both the success Rowland Hall has found debating and the truly uplifting and positive environment on the team.”
After all, it’s this uplifting and positive environment that will continue the momentum of this season, and returning members are excited to build on the team’s latest success. They also recognize the exceptional group they are part of.
“Our team is special because our collaboration is organic and we have many committed members,” said Zion. “Mr. Shackelford, Zach Thiede, and upperclassmen to novices prioritize our learning, experience, and understanding of debate conceptually, which in turn improves performance.”
This team-first approach also builds confidence, and while the debaters can’t know for sure what the future holds, their collective experiences over the last three years have shown them that they can believe in themselves and are capable of holding their team to their newest standard of excellence.
“Success breeds expectations, but as an optimist, I've found that expectations dictate outcomes,” said Mike, who knows that the state of Rowland Hall’s debate program is solid—and its future promising. “Our students can compete against anyone, on any topic, in any format. Our program is as strong as ever thanks to great student leaders and mentors who continued the guidance for each new batch of young debaters and reinforced a culture of success.”
Rowland Hall Debate State Performances 2023
Below are Rowland Hall’s top performances at the 2023 state tournament, by debate event.
- Informative Speaking: Senior Angel Wang earned an excellence rating in this event, where debaters present a 10-minute prepared speech that seeks to inform and explain.
- Lincoln-Douglas: Senior Julia Summerfield was Rowland Hall’s top performer in this event, finishing as a quarterfinalist for her solo debate on the Supreme Court.
- Impromptu Speaking: Ninth grader Anya Ellahie was a finalist in this event in which debaters are given a random topic and have one to two minutes to prepare before delivering five-minute speeches.
- Extemporaneous Speaking: Senior Zachary Klein took second place in this event in which debaters are given a current-event question and have 30 minutes to research, write, and deliver seven-minute speeches. Senior Amelie Corson was also a finalist in the event.
- Student Congress: Sophomore Andrew Murphy took second place in this event where students lead and participate in a simulation where they debate different pieces of national legislation. Ninth grader Zion Wirthlin-Ngugi also finished in the top five of the event.
- Policy: Seniors Ruchi Agarwal and Layla Hijjawi took first place in this event for their debate on the best proposals for NATO security. Juniors Marina Peng and Logan Fang, sophomores Eli Hatton and Aiden Gandhi, and ninth graders Enzo Rust and Baker Campsen all had winning records in Policy, finishing in second, third, and fourth, respectively. That's a clean sweep!
- Public Forum: Senior teammates Micah Sheinberg and Anna Hull took first place in this event for their debate on the pros and cons of India's space program. Junior Sophie Baker and sophomore Elena Owens also made it to finals, giving them the co-championship. Senior teammates Amelie Corson and Iman Ellahie, as well as the team of junior Harris Matheson and ninth grader Harrison Lasater, were quarterfinalists in the event.