Community Education

Gig Harbor speech and debate making a persuasive case

Posted on January 24th, 2023 By:

Members of the Gig Harbor High School speech and debate team are competing in person this year for the first time since the pandemic.

During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, they debated virtually. For the first of those years, they were completely at home. It was a daunting challenge in a competition centered on interpersonal skills.

“Last year, at least, we got to bring them to school to attend rounds online,” said coach Chris Coovert. “For the kids, it just wasn’t the same. That first year, most of our team quit, and we only had a few experienced kids last year.”

First at UPS Invitational

This year, not only have the numbers bounced back, but the team has made a strong showing at recent tournaments. Members earned awards in a range of categories and levels, from novice to open.

At the University of Puget Sound Invitational earlier in January, they won first place in the overall sweepstakes, a reflection of their strength as a team.

“This is the first year that has felt normal since early 2020, and it has been great for the kids,” Coovert said. “I’m very proud that we kept our program going online and had a few kids do really well, but this is much better for the kids.”

The Gig Harbor High School speech and debate team after the awards ceremony at a tournament in Mount Vernon earlier in January 2023.

Upcoming tournaments

After wrapping up the regular season, the team will have a national qualifying tournament March 3-4. “We are likely to qualify four to seven students for the national tournament in June (in Phoenix, Arizona),” Coovert said.

The state speech tournament is March 11 and the state debate tournament is March 17-18. The team were the state speech champions 2017 through 2019, and Coovert is looking for a comeback.

“We are especially excited to compete at the state speech tournament and hopefully get back into the top five teams,” he said.

Coovert notes “the amazing help I have” from his assistant coaches and volunteers. Most of them are his former students. “There is no way we could have this success if I had to do it alone,” he said.

Not at a loss for words

“I’ve just always loved debating and negotiating with people, and so I knew that’d be something fun,” said Ally DeHope, a ninth grader who is new to the team this year and already enjoying success.

At the UPS tournament, she placed third in novice impromptu speaking. The event requires students to speak persuasively for six minutes on topics they’re handed at random. At a tournament Jan. 14 and 15 in Mt. Vernon, she and teammate Elise Hill were semi-finalists in the novice public forum debate.

DeHope is in the school’s for-credit Speech and Debate class, although that’s not a requirement to participate on the team.

“The debate class is a great way for students to learn skills and have time to prepare for competition,” Coovert said. “Most of our first-year members are in the class, but we have several who are not who have been really successful. To participate in competitions, students just need to register for the team and come to practices.”

Backed by research

Contestants in public forum are assigned a new topic or “resolution” each month.

“The current resolution we’re arguing is, ‘Should the United State increase its diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve internal, ongoing armed conflicts in West Asia?’ DeHope explained. “You definitely have to do your research for your cases that you’re going to present on the topic.”

Students must come ready to cite their sources and offer counter-arguments to their opponents’ side.

“I think one of the greatest skills I’ve learned from debate is to know what I’m talking about, to be educated on things, but also to be able to defend my opinions and my views,” said DeHope, who plans to become a lawyer.

“Speech and debate builds confidence and poise that can help students in school and any career they may choose,” Coovert said. “It also teaches critical thinking, research skills and helps students build knowledge of the world. Other teachers have told me many times that the debate kids demonstrate these skills in the classroom.”

Benefits for any field

Senior Matt Embick competed at Mt. Vernon in the open division of the Lincoln Douglas debate competition, a one-on-one format in which participants argue the moral and ethical implications of a topic. Embick’s topic dealt with the pros and cons of open borders and human migration. He reached the octa-finals and got third speaker overall for the tournament.

Embick plans a career in medicine and will pack along his speech and debate repertoire.

“On first glance, it may not seem like the type of thing where persuasive speaking would be required,” he said. “Debate is inherently engaging with people and being able to understand how people think, ask them questions.”

Embick said he learned respectful discourse, empathy and the ability to reach a compromise through his participation in Speech and Debate.

Gig Harbor High School’s Logan Thoms and Blake Donion receiving their Extemporaneous speaking awards at a tournament at Auburn Riverside High School.

Coovert has many alumni who are lawyers, as one would expect.

“Debate is great preparation for this,” he said. “But it’s honestly good preparation for almost anything. I have several doctors who went through my program as well as former students who tell me they use their skills in many parts of the business world.”

Senior Nichole Tian, president of the Tides Speech and Debate Team, plans to go into computer science. Quick and accurate research skills will be beneficial, she said.

“Being able to structure an argument well and find the evidence that you need will be very useful in all aspects of life,” Tian said. “Being able to quickly think of counter-arguments is a skill I think will be good in the future because it’s always important to be curious and slightly skeptical about everything you hear.”

Recent tournament highlights

Coovert shared a list (below) of most but not all awards from the past two tournaments.

“We have a lot of students who are working hard and doing really well this year,” he said. “It’s been especially exciting to see how hard our new team members are working and the success that work is bringing.”

UPS Tournament

  • First place overall, Sweepstakes (“This is the only tournament we attend that has an overall award,” Coovert said.)
  • Alexa Kotasky, first place Programmed Oral Interpretation
  • Madison Clement, second place Programmed Oral Interpretation
  • Ellis Adamson, second place Extemporaneous Speaking
  • Autumn Coovert (Coovert’s daughter), second place Dramatic Interpretation
  • Alexa Kotansky, third place Dramatic Interpretation
  • Ally DeHope, third place Novice Impromptu Speaking
  • Elise Hill, third Novice Original Oratory
  • Maddison Gaffaney, second Novice Informative Speaking

Mt. Vernon Tournament

  • Kit Wood, first place Dramatic Interpretation
  • Isabella Puccio, third place Humorous Interpretation
  • Natalie Behnke, third place Impromptu Speaking
  • Autumn Coovert, first place Novice Lincoln Douglas Debate
  • Elise Hill, second place Novice Informative Speaking
  • Elise Hill and Ally DeHope, semi-finalists Novice Public Forum Debate
  • Logan Thoms, second place Novice Impromptu
  • Ally DeHope, first place Novice Impromptu
  • Logan Thoms and Madison Clement, quarterfinalists Open Public Forum Debate
  • Nichole Tian and Eliana Deitrich, octa-finalists, Open Public Forum Debate
  • Matt Embick, octa-finalist, Open Lincoln Douglas Debate
  • Emily Negron, octa-finalist Open Lincoln Douglas Debate
  • Eliana Dietrich, Third Place Informative Speaking