Despite competing in a year that, to many, appeared to be out of this world, the force was with the Carrollton High School debate team when it captured its 11th state title by winning the 2021 Georgia Forensic Coaches Association Varsity State Championships held March 5-6.
The coronavirus pandemic required the event to be held virtually with 20 teams from across Georgia competing through the National Speech and Debate Association’s online platform. This year teams debated the merits of the U.S. Space Force program, the newest branch of the armed forces.
Seniors Patrick Berzsenyi and Alec Siek led the CHS team to final victory in the Public Forum finals, defeating perennial debate powerhouse Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta. Bolstering Carrollton’s performance in the bracket were junior Andy Herndon and sophomore Mark Zimmer who won the quarterfinal round and advanced to the semifinals. Other team members who contributed to the title with wins were the pairs Javier Lopez-Miranda and Lyall Penley, and Sonny DeMartino and John Bohannon.
Long-time debate coach Richard Bracknell said there are many reasons why the program has been so successful, but a primary consideration is the school system’s commitment to send the team to competitive tournaments all over the country. Although it didn’t happen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, typically debaters attend prestigious tournaments at Columbia University in New York, Harvard University in Boston, and other significant destinations to hone their skills.
“We are so fortunate the Carrollton Board of Education is supportive of the extra effort it takes to compete in the top tier,” said Bracknell. “Allowing our teams to travel to prestigious tournaments exposes them to what it takes to be a champion.”
Debate teams have been competing virtually all year which required adjustments and effort to see what worked best for preparation for the final stage, Bracknell said.
“Person-to-person debates were impossible as well as taking the debate trips,” he said. “All of this has been very trying for the debaters.”
In an effort to make the situation more palpable for the students, Bracknell said special activities were developed that linked to significant events such as the renowned Peach State Classic tournament the program hosts every year and various holidays.
On the Tuesday following the win, the team was featured on the Community Voice program on WLBB, a local radio station. In that interview session, debater Javier Lopez-Miranda noted the virtual format also meant the debaters could not see the judges so they had no idea how the judges were reacting to their team or their opponents.
“That’s been one of the complications of COVID,” he said on the program. “Usually you are seeing the judges and you can tell if you are doing well because many of them will nod their heads in agreement. If you get no reaction at all, you don’t know how you’re doing.”
Bracknell noted on the radio show the value of participation in the debate program goes beyond competition. It teaches lifelong skills such as critical thinking and discernment.
“You become a far better person if you are willing to listen to both sides and make logical, reasonable assumptions based on that,” Bracknell said. “Not to become experts on anything, but to learn how to assess issues and formulate reasonable ideas. I hope that’s what the team gains through this program.”
CHS Principal David Brooks noted the team’s success is particularly exceptional this year.
“Team members took the virtual format and made it work, even though they all knew it wasn’t an optimum way to compete,” said Brooks. “They persevered, worked hard, and figured out how to navigate the situation. I am extremely proud of all of them.”
THE HISTORICAL RECORD: Carrollton’s debate program not only shines in the academic realm, but also stands out among all competitive entities at CHS, boasting the second highest number of state championships earned in the school’s history, surpassed only by boys track. The team has been crowned state champion 11 times – in 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2010, 2018 and 2021. The team was the state runner-up champion seven times – in 1986, 1990, 1991, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. The team also has captured numerous region titles and tournament wins.