Debate team quarrels to success

After cross-examining the opposing side and trying their hardest not to stutter and risk a costly loss, they thanked the judge and switched off their microphones, hoping against hope that they’d outdone their opponent. 

Not a court case, but a high school National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) debate. Not nervous attorneys, but Staples students Jeffrey Pogue ’23 and Yash Hari ’23. And not pressing constitutional matters of jail and justice, but rather, the question of who would get the largest trophy mailed to them and who would walk away with only college application material. 

“I think [debate] is great practice at a specific form of public speaking, but also making up arguments on the fly for either side of an argument,” Hari said.

On Saturday Nov. 14, Pogue and Hari entered the NSDA Zoom call and left after earning second place in the Novice Alpha division of the Connecticut Debate Association (CDA) Nov. debate under the National Speech and Debate Association. 

According to the NSDA 2020-2021 High School Unified Manual, teams participating in NSDA debates compete against one another to impress the judges and win points on their individual performances and skills. The teams are given a resolution statement, and they periodically switch sides of the topic from the affirming stance, where they must defend the resolution statement, to the negating stance, where they must disagree and refute the resolution statement, and vice versa.

“The topics are usually ripped straight from the headlines,” John Bengston, the faculty advisor for the Staples debate team, said. “A lot of the material comes from issues that are predominantly either politically or culturally or socially relevant to the world today.”

In Pogue and Hari’s most recent debate, they won all three of their individual debates on large tech companies. By placing in the top five of the Nov. 14 debate, they qualified for the Connecticut state finals competition on March 27, which they plan to compete in. 

“I didn’t even know there was a state competition until after my first debate, so I wasn’t aiming for that,” Pogue said. “There’s this atmosphere when you’re debating, a complete battle of wits and knowledge, and it’s really fun to clash that way in a place where other people won’t get mad at you for arguing.”

“There’s this atmosphere when you’re debating, a complete battle of wits and knowledge, and it’s really fun to clash that way in a place where other people won’t get mad at you for arguing,

— Jeffrey Pogue ’23

The state competition precedes the national competition in the NSDA, and Pogue and Hari, the team that qualified, can’t change partners at this point. 

“I just want to do the best I can and we might as well get as far as we can,” Hari said. “We’re a good team, so I think we’ll stay this way for a period of time.”

Hari and Pogue surpassed all other Staples duos and all except one of the participating duos in the Novice Alpha division. Past Staples debate teams have had similar successes in past years at preliminary competitions. 

“I’m very proud of them and I think they did an excellent job,” Bengston said. “I think they’re going to do an excellent job when they represent Staples at the state tournament at the end of the season. I think it’s an excellent victory.” 

In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the NSDA debates to go online, and the Staples debate team has also moved its Wednesday meetings online.

“If this was a usual year, we would travel on Saturdays with our students and our adult volunteers to participate in those debates, but since we are currently not doing that, we do so through Zoom,” Bengston said.

The once-monthly CDA debates and following national debates will continue to function over Zoom for the rest of the CDA debates of this NSDA season. Pogue, Hari and possibly other Staples teams will compete online in the state competition on March 27.

“I think it’s an excellent club. I think that we have a great group of kids and we are getting better every year,” Bengston said. “I think we are a growing program and I’m very proud of these kids.”