EVANSTON — The Evanston High School Speak of the Devil speech and debate team, guided by head coach Brian Hill and assistant coach Clarissa Cole, closed out a successful season over the weekend when five students excelled at the Wind River District tournament to qualify for spots at the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) tournament in June. The three-day district tournament was held March 18-20, on the heels of the Wyoming State Speech and Debate tournament held the previous weekend.
The Wind River District encompasses the western half of Wyoming, as for national qualifiers states are divided into districts rather than simply qualifying by state. Evanston, Green River, Rock Springs, Star Valley, Casper, Riverton, Jackson Hole and other schools are all part of the Wind River District.
Evanston High School students Cole Francis, Aidan Jacketta, Aidan McGuire, Allyson Sawyer and Randie Odden all qualified to participate in the national tournament, which will be held virtually again this year. McGuire, Jacketta and 2020 graduate Alyssa Liechty all competed in the national tournament last year as well.
The team of Francis and McGuire qualified in public forum (PF) debate, which is a two-person team debate in which competitors have to be prepared to argue both for and against a particular topic based on factual cited evidence. The topic for both the district and state competition was, “the benefits of the U.S. Space Force outweigh the harms.” Competitors don’t know until a round begins whether they’ll be arguing for or against and must compete in multiple, approximately hour-long, rounds throughout the course of a tournament.
In a regular tournament, all competitors compete in four preliminary PF rounds and the teams with the best records then advance to knockout rounds — quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. In the district tournament, however, each team was only guaranteed two rounds. Once a team had two losses they were eliminated in a bracket-style tournament. The team of senior Francis and junior McGuire, who have competed together for multiple seasons, lost their opening debate before battling back through the down bracket and going undefeated in the next five straight rounds to earn a national spot.
Jacketta and McGuire both qualified in Congress-House while Francis qualified as an alternate in Congress-Senate. The Congress event includes multiple rounds in which competitors introduce, debate and vote on bills written and submitted by the participants themselves. Parliamentary procedure must be followed as students give speeches for and against various bills.
In a typical tournament, Congress does not split into House and Senate but simply has different chambers of about 15-16 students each. Judges rank students based on the quality of speeches given and the top competitors advance to a Super Congress session. Usually each of three preliminary sessions lasts an hour and a half, as do each of two Super Congress sessions. However, at the district tournament, there was only one preliminary session of three hours, followed by one Super Congress session of an additional three hours.
McGuire also qualified in the original oratory event, which is a speech event. Participants choose a topic early in the season and develop an approximately 10-minute speech explaining the topic problem, its relevance and history, and what can be done about it, citing evidence throughout. Topics can be anything but often range from health issues to discrimination and racism to immigration to sexism and more.
In a typical tournament, participants compete in four preliminary rounds, usually in a room of four to five other competitors. Judges rank participants from first to last in each room and those with the highest rankings (lowest totals) advance to knockout rounds. As with other events, however, the district tournament used a different, double-down elimination method. Once a student was ranked in the bottom three of a round on two different occasions, that student was eliminated. McGuire made it through to the final round with his speech about racism in the United States.
Sawyer and Odden earned two of 15 available spots to compete in World Schools at the national tournament, which is a team debate event where they will be competing with other students as a team rotating through events. At the district tournament, Sawyer and Odden both competed in extemporaneous speaking, which is a challenging event in which competitors draw a topic at the beginning of a round and then have 30 minutes to both research the topic and create a speech. Each round features a different topic, so successful competitors may draft upwards of six different approximately seven-minute speeches in one tournament.
Sawyer competed in international extemporaneous speaking, with global topics, while Odden competed in U.S. extemporaneous speaking. Again, the tournament featured a double-down elimination, where students were eliminated after being ranked in the bottom three in two separate rounds.
Team placement awards, also called sweepstakes awards, are also doled out for teams who score the most points overall, and Evanston High School earned second place honors in Congress due to the number of students excelling in that discipline.
At the state tournament held over the weekend of March 11-13, EHS students also did well, with Francis and McGuire advancing as far as quarterfinals in PF debate, Jacketta advancing to quarterfinals in Lincoln-Douglas debate and the Super Congress final, and senior Téa Cox earning fifth place honors with her poetry interpretation entry.
Participating in speech and debate has been particularly challenging this season, as all events have been held virtually since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means students have had to find quiet locations with decent WiFi more or less every weekend since October in order to compete, from about noon to 10 p.m. on Friday and again from 8 a.m. to about 8 p.m. on Saturday, in what is the longest season of any competitive program at EHS.
Lost or poor internet connections requiring students to “pick up where they were cut off” to complete their piece, inability to have both audio and video at the same time, and the loss of in-person cues competitors rely on to hone their entries throughout a competition have all presented hurdles students and coaches have had to overcome.
In a normal, in-person tournament, students are often “double entered,” which means they have to participate in two different events in the same time slot. This necessitates reporting to one event, asking permission to speak first, and then rushing to another classroom to compete in an entirely different discipline. This season, being double entered meant reporting to one virtual room with other competitors, competing, disconnecting and logging back in to an entirely different virtual room to compete again. Students who did well and made it to elimination rounds often repeated this process up to 6-10 times per tournament.
Doing well in Wyoming tournaments is an impressive feat. What those outside of the speech and debate world may not know is that Wyoming produces some outstanding competitors. The NSDA maintains rankings of all competing high school students and, currently, Wyoming has four students ranked in the top 15 nationally, with three of those in the top 10. Multiple students ranked in the top 100 nationally hail from the Wind River District, meaning all competitors must be at the top of their game at each competition, but particularly at state and district events.
While students and coaches Hill and Cole were ecstatic over the results announced Saturday night, it was also an emotional evening. Hill announced he would be stepping back from the head coach role next season in order to spend more time with his family, including his young children. Cole also announced she is retiring at the end of this season. Although both Hill and Cole expressed their intention to continue to assist whenever possible, the Speak of the Devil team will be looking for a new head coach for next season in hopes of continued success.