Speech and Debate makes history at Nationals

Anna Feng, Senior Staff Writer

While most students spend their summers taking a break from school and school related extracurriculars, four students from the Palo Alto High School Speech and Debate team did just the opposite. Instead, they attended the National Speech and Debate Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, ultimately making history by taking home a championship win.

Junior Ethan Boneh — champion in Big Questions debate — and coach Sarah Simon hold plaques at the National Speech and Debate Championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Boneh competed in Big Questions debate, which involves a debate between two contestants about a topic regarding the intersection of science, philosophy and religion. According to Boneh, he did not anticipate a win and was surprised with his performance. “I had indeed gone in expecting to be eliminated within the first couple days, but I performed quite well at the tournament,” Boneh stated in an email. “While I can’t say I expected a championship, I was very pleased with how sharp my skills had become throughout the tournament.” (Photo: Mihir Menon)

At the national championships held from June 12 through June 17 in Louisville, Kentucky, junior Ethan Boneh won the championship — the first win in the Paly program’s history — in Big Questions debate and sophomore Mihir Menon advanced to quarterfinals. In Congressional debate, junior Lucas Guan advanced to semifinals and junior Benjamin Grimes advanced to round three of preliminary rounds.

According to Jennie Savage, director emeritus, the team’s performance has been nothing short of stellar, with three of the students qualifying for the exclusive “elimination” rounds.

“All of our students are sharp and focused and have growth mindsets, which contributed to their successes,” Savage stated in an email. “But, beyond that, their close teamwork and their phenomenal coaches … truly paved the way.”

With Savage’s recent retirement, the team’s performance at Nationals was especially significant, according to Kyle Hietala, who now leads the program. 

“Ethan debated his final round at Nationals in the final hours of Jennie’s official tenure as program director, and his victory was announced later that evening in the first few hours of my tenure,” Hietala stated in an email. “Our success at Nationals and the way our team celebrated together is Jennie’s impact made manifest. To me it felt like an authentic, fitting tribute to her.” 

Boneh echoed this sentiment, adding that he hoped the team’s success at Nationals symbolized the result of a legacy of the program Savage created. 

“Jennie is the one who sculpted the team into the powerhouse it is, so our performance at nationals felt, in part, like a way to prove to her that her legacy would be continued,” Boneh stated in an email.

According to Boneh, he credits his win in part to his thorough preparation, which helped him develop a firm grasp of major arguments through a combination of independent research and drills with coaches and teammates.

“We [were] meeting in-person with our coaches and other Nationals debaters twice a week to flesh out arguments and figure out our rhetoric against them,” Boneh stated. “Mihir … and I would have a practice round with our coaches judging, pausing us between speeches, having us give responses over, and making sure we had a firm grasp on how to debate every major argument within the fixed time.”

Guan, a competitor in Congressional debate, stated that this year’s in-person competition gave him the chance to meet other competitors and support his fellow teammates, a contrast to last year’s virtual championship.

“During the national tournament last year, I competed alone in my room from my laptop, so I feel incredibly fortunate to have competed with my wonderful teammates and other competitors in person,” Guan stated in an email. “Next year, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to bring even more of the Paly team to the national tournament.”

According to Hietala, the success at Nationals will be a motivating factor going into the new season, and the support and enthusiasm of the team will make additional success even more meaningful.

“Our success at Nationals definitely creates momentum going into next season,” Hietala stated. “What fires me up the most is how our entire team supported and cheered on our four competitors. The successes are great, but it’s how the team celebrated them that bodes well for next season, because a strong culture and close community make successes feel even better.”

With the added prestige of now being a part of a national championship program, Boneh stated that he is excited for next year’s season and will continue to focus on honing his skills in debating. 

“I’m quite excited for next year’s season — all tournaments will go back to in-person, the team is set to grow, and I get to have an active role in training incoming novices,” Boneh stated. “As for me, I keep my self-esteem separate from my record and plan to just keep doing what I always do — debating.”