Debate Team Goes to Princeton


Isabella Leyton and Daisy Lu

Poly’s Speech and Debate team competed in their first in-person conference since March 2020 in early December. Eighteen students from both speech and debate spent a weekend at Princeton, competing in the Princeton Classic conference, making this one of the most attended competitions for the team since COVID-19. Four debate students ended up advancing into the elimination rounds, including two first-time competitors, and two varsity debaters who ended preliminary rounds as the number one seed. The conference was split up into six events: Novice and Varsity Public Forum, Lincoln Douglas, Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, and Original Oratory.

On Friday, the Poly team arrived with excitement and nerves, but there was no time to relish in the feeling as the debate team immediately started competing, while the speech team practiced in the hotel room. Saturday was a full day of debate rounds, and those who advanced competed on Sunday in the elimination rounds. Everyone is guaranteed to compete in preliminary rounds in a tournament, and those who advance to the next level go to the elimination rounds. If a student makes it to the elimination rounds, that typically means that they are in the top half of all competitors in their event. Much like the name suggests, during the elimination rounds, there are a certain number of students eliminated at the end of each heat. The last elimination round of a tournament is the finals featuring the lasting two debate teams.

Eason Yao ’25 and Connor McGeary ’26 competed for the first time with Poly and advanced into the elimination rounds. Jonah Sah ’23 and George Tiesi ’23, two of Poly’s long time debaters, went undefeated in Varsity Public Forum and advanced into elimination rounds as the number one seed. Preliminary seeding largely takes into account speaker points, total points, opponents’ total wins, and judge variance. The students that did not advance to the finals cheered on their teammates on Sunday.

The captain of the speech team, Jennifer Lavagnino-Sisk ’23, joined the speech team her sophomore year after taking Associate Director of Speech, Caitlin Bliss’s speech class. Lavagnino said, “I enjoyed working with her because she is incredibly intelligent and pushes me to be the best performer I can be.”

Even as one of the most experienced members on the team, this competition was new for Lavagnino-Sisk as she has never gone to one with other people from Poly because the conferences have been virtual for nearly three years, in which Lavagnino-Sisk and others participated from home, independently. Additionally, during the pandemic, the speech team was very small, so Lavagnino-Sisk was often the only one competing in a speech event. Her favorite part of the trip was “getting to hang out with the new speech team. [They] had a lot of fun talking about pieces [they] had seen in between rounds and everyone was so friendly. It was great to have their company.”

Caitlin Bliss, the associate director of speech, said that she also loved seeing the student’s bond between rounds and throughout the trip, including on the bus and at the hotel. According to Bliss, her favorite part of the trip was “the speech team dress rehearsal that took place in the hotel conference room on Friday evening.” Usually the speech team practices alone, so the students don’t get the chance to hear their teammates’ speeches. However, during the pre-tournament dress rehearsal, the students listened closely to each performance, and afterwards, “they provided helpful feedback and encouragement to one another.” Team bonding encouraged everyone to move forward in their rounds, and as Bliss said, the student’s “generosity set the tone for the weekend, providing a warm welcome to the first-time competitors on the team making their debut appearances.”

Not only did this Princeton Classic provide a more serious competition for returning speakers and debaters, but it was also a great way to start the season for new members. Keelin Walshe ’23, Kester Walshe ’25, Eve Harris ’26, and MaKiyah Turner-Hicks ’24 all made their in-person tournament debut.

The Princeton trip was an opportunity for the students to compete against other speech and debate teams from all over the country. Lavagnino-Sisk felt “nervous because this was a national tournament which meant the entries were going to be more competitive.” She did not advance to the out rounds, but from this experience, she learned that she has to work on “making her hand gestures more precise.”

This is just the beginning for the speech and debate team. Their regular season ends mid-March, and additional tournaments extend until June. Overall, this trip helped novices get an idea of the speech and debate environment, and allowed experienced speakers to participate in a more competitive environment as opposed to local tournaments. The whole team will join together again for their upcoming tournaments such as UPenn and Harvard in mid-February.