Speech and Debate team finishes Top 10 in the country

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Words inspire action, and action sparks change. Competing in over 20 tournaments all year, the Speech and Debate team gives students the platform to spread their message.

To close off the year-long season, the team attended the National Tournament run by the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) in Louisville, Ky. June 12-18.  

Students competed at the district competition Feb. 26 and 27 or at the Last-Chance National Qualifying Tournament May 5-7 to qualify. In the Manatee District (one of Florida’s geographical NSDA districts which Heritage is part of), three students in each competitive event qualified to attend NSDA Nationals. Last-Chance took an additional number of students depending on the number of entries in each event. Twenty-five students from Heritage attended Nationals.

Waking up at 3:00 a.m. to take two flights and a bus ride to reach the hotel left everyone hungry and tired. The AC Hotel by Marriot was situated in the downtown area of Louisville, surrounded by restaurants such as Royals Hot Chicken, Please and Thank You, Señora Arepa, Guaca Mole and La Bodeguita De Mima. Over the six-day trip, students visited nearly all the restaurants. “La Bodeguita de Mima was by far my favorite restaurant that we ate at in Louisville not only because it was five steps away from our hotel but because the food has its own placemat in heaven. I tell this to everyone whenever I talk about the restaurant, but their white rice is an amazing meal on its own,” senior Aurora Lai said.

Competition began Monday, June 13, at several local schools and college campuses including DuPont Manual High School and the University of Louisville. Preliminary rounds finished June 14; all students who were eliminated had the chance to enter a supplementary event the next day.

Speech supplementary events took place at Valley High School, which many students found to be a major contrast from their previous competition venues. “Valley High was a fever dream. Our rounds were about four hours apart so kids were passed out sleeping on the dirty ground and the bathrooms had three-foot tall stalls which promptly ran out of toilet paper at about noon each day,” senior Carly Aikens said.

The aforementioned sentiments reached a point where competitors from other schools even made memes about them. (Photo/@nsdanats22memes on Instagram)

As the tournament progressed, cheers erupted across campuses and hotel rooms as students discovered that they had progressed to the next rounds. “It’s every speech kid’s  dream to make it to the finals stage. And mine just came true,” junior Esther Oyetunji said.

Three students made it to the final rounds in their respective events — recent graduate Abigail Canalejo in Program Oral Interpretation, Oyetunji in Original Oratory and junior Anya Pinto in Expository Speaking — and the whole team watched these performances to support them. 

At the award ceremony Friday, June 17, Heritage was recognized as one of the Top 10 schools in the country. Speech coach Mr. Joele Denis earned a Diamond Award to commend his teaching for over five years and accumulation of over 15,000 NSDA points.

Oyetunji championed Original Oratory, winning First Place and the Bowl Award to commemorate her win of the final round. Canalejo won Second Place in Program Oral Interpretation, also winning the Bowl Award. Pinto won Third Place in Expository Speaking. As partners, recent graduate Odin Farkas and senior Evan Burkeen won Eighth Place for Public Forum Debate. Juniors Kennedy Hack-Juman and Sophie Simon won Eighth Place in Duo Interpretation. Recent graduate Oliver Laczko won Tenth Place in Humorous Interpretation and was recognized as a Four-Time National Qualifier. Senior Diane Li won 14th Place in Dramatic Interpretation. Seniors Sharvaa Selvan and Ethan Roytman finished Top 29 in the nation in Public Forum Debate. Senior Carly Aikens in Original Oratory and Impromptu Speaking, sophomore Jaimee Canalejo in Storytelling and sophomore Suriya Gadh in Informative Speaking advanced to Octofinals. The World Schools Debate team made up of sophomore Jake Zeng, senior Mary Abi-Karam and recent graduate Emilin Mathew as well as the Public Forum Debate team of seniors Clayton Zipperian and Sophia Abati advanced to Double-Octofinals.

With lasting memories in their hearts and trophies in their arms, students returned home to Florida, Saturday, June 18. “Our students have worked diligently during the pandemic, taking advantage of every opportunity to compete, practice, and sharpen their speaking and argumentation skills. To see our students recognized at the highest level, both individually and as a team, makes me prouder than I can describe,” speech coach Mr. Ryan Levesque said.

After the awards ceremony, the team gathered on the NSDA stage to close off the evening. (Photos/Joele Denis)

Now a senior at American Heritage, Anya returns as Editor-in-Chief of the Patriot Post. With her passion for journalism, she is Co-President of the Quill and Scroll Honor Society. She started an organization called “ActionPAKT: Projects Advocating for a Kinder Tomorrow” to educate youth about current issues and help them take action; currently, she has expanded it to 15+ chapters in multiple countries, raising $17,000 within the Heritage chapter itself. As a Youth Ambassador for Bullets4Life, Anya advocates for gun control. She leads the top Model UN program in the nation as President, competing nationally and organizing conferences at school. To relax, Anya hangs out with friends, swims, goes on walks and binge watches Netflix. She loves the beach, good food and her lazy little dog Simba more than anything.