Seniors Lead the Way

Speech and debate conclude a successful in-person season


Parkway Central speech and debate members at MSHSAA district 4 tournament in Ladue Horton Watkins High School on Mar. 4. Photo by Esther Wang.

Esther Wang, Staff Writer

COVID-19 broke the backbone of many extracurricular activities, but not speech and debate. After competing virtually for two years, speech and debate returned to in-person training and tournaments.

“In the larger speech and debate world, the teams are shrinking, like [the speech and debate teams are] cut in half,” head coach of the Parkway Central speech and debate team Mattie Rudolph said. “Those teams that have a long standing tradition of Speech and Debate and a very strong program with the same coach for a long, long time, they didn’t lose as many, but they still got smaller.”

The Parkway Central Speech and Debate team is one of the few teams that grew larger in the district this year. Many novices that joined this year believe the activity gives students a voice in social problems today and encourage them to think critically.

“What motivated me to join speech and debate is the opportunity for one to have public speaking experience, which is necessary in adult life,” Jahden Jones-Brown, a junior and a first year debater said. “It also allows you to express your ideas in which you can argue certain things. Even if you don’t believe in it, it allows you to be creative in your arguments.”

Besides seeing the meaning within the activity, being able to establish relationships with fellow teammates also motivates new members to join. Returning with in-person practices helps bring the team together.

“When I joined, it was all virtual. I didn’t really get to interact with my upperclassmen as much as the lower classmen now are interacting with the upperclassmen.” Varsity speech member, junior Tarini Karnati said. “When we got in person I think everyone was a lot more collaborative. Everyone listening to each other’s speeches made it a lot more fun and encouraging.”

In-person tournaments also pose a challenge to many competitors, especially for those who joined during the last two years, since they never competed in-person before.

“This is the first year we have actual in-person tournaments, which I take time to get used to,” sophomore Radhika Sinha, varsity speech member, said. “I think it’s been really fun to meet other competitors.”

The tournaments are a lot more exciting for competitors in general, but it can also be nerve-wrecking. Building up confidence in competitors is one of the biggest challenges as a coach.

“You’re not only there to help them learn how to communicate your ideas, you’re also helping teach them how to overcome disappointment and hardships,” Rudolph said. “And so watching kids that have worked so hard to compete, and then just see them disappointed in themselves when you are nothing but proud of them.”

The value of tournaments lie far beyond winning. For novices, it’s highly recommended to compete in all tournaments available because it’s the best way for them to grow as speakers and debaters.

“I like going to tournaments, winning or losing, it doesn’t matter,” Jones-Brown said. “But especially when I win, I think it’s a good achievement. Just the fact that it’s my first year, yet I’ve been able to accomplish so much just by going to all the tournaments.”

Tournaments not only help develop a novice’s skills, it also helps build up the team. High tournaments turnout boost the team’s confidence.

“I liked all the tournaments. But I like any tournament where we had most of our team members come, like the Marquette one. There were so many of us. The Parkway West one was fun because there were a lot of us,” Karnati said. “So those ones are always the fun ones.”

Parkway Central’s Speech and Debate team had a great recovery from COVID. According to, they competed in all regular tournaments except one this season. However, not all types of speech and debate have a comeback this year. Policy debate suffered a decline in members through COVID year. It was popular back when the current captain, senior Nish Murali, joined because it’s the hardest of all debates. Ever since the competition went virtual, the number of policy debaters in Parkway Central is declining.

“Our policy is very much shrinking and struggling with it despite the incredibly hard work and wonderful guidance of Nisha, she’s an amazing captain,” Rudolph said. “Because of the work of policy and just the beast that it is, many more kids have turned to Public Forum or Lincoln-Douglas as a style of debate.”

Rudolph began her position as head coach in the fall of 2019, so she has watched the Class of 2023 grow as individuals and fill in the spot of captainship from the very beginning.

“My favorite thing [about this season] is that the seniors this year are the ones that were with me my first year as head coach.” Rudolph said. “Watching them compete this year and watching them as captains, and to see their growth from these very quiet, timid individuals when they were so young, to these very well spoken and confident individuals. Knowing how lucky the world’s going to be to have them once they leave us.”

The underclassmen also benefited greatly from the seniors, many of whom competed at state level and had four years of experience to pass on to the newer members.

“The seniors are really helpful towards the novices.” Jones-Brown said. “And I think they’re great people to be around just because they have the experience, yet they’re not afraid to share their experience and also give off advice. They don’t keep advice to themselves.”

More specifically, the speech and debate captains do most of the teaching. Debate captains, such as senior Allison Loudenback  taught the basic structure, debate skills and provided information on debate topics for novices. 

“She [Allison Loudenback] taught us the best ways to argue when it came down to the topic, she really broke it down and made it simple and plain.” Jones-Brown said. “And then she went on to give us, you know, certain contingents, we can run in certain cards that really helped us create our cases.”

The speech captains also help new speakers get used to the speech world. They include practices, different speech drills and give feedback to speech members.

“Nisha is always there to like, correct my mistakes and help me improve and become better than I’ve already been.” Tarini said. “Gaaya and Elaine are really good about coming up with these random exercises, one time we had to read a book like pick a random book from one of the teachers bookshelves, and read it in a funny voice, which was interesting, and a bit embarrassing.”

The seniors at Parkway Central are some of the highest ranking speakers and debaters in Missouri. According to the National Speech and Debate Association’s Missouri Ranking, Gaaya Binoj is ranked 39 in extemporaneous speaking., and Allison Loudenback is ranked 37 in Lincoln Douglas Debate and 50 in prose. The seniors have also been several times district and state champions even though they competed virtually for two years. Binoj has been district international extemporaneous speaking champion and public forum debate champion with her partner Emily Huang. Loudenback is district radio speaking champion and Lincoln Douglas debate semi-finalist. Senior Gina Hua is also twice a public forum debate semi-finalist.

“They truly believe in what they’re doing. They want to know what’s happening in the world, and to be able to critically think about what’s happening in society,” Rudolph said. “And then they also are incredibly intelligent and look at what they’ve overcome. Since their freshman year, their high school years have never been a normal year of high school. And so that their ability to persevere, and to overcome challenges has been what’s made them so successful.”

Being the building block of the team, the seniors also bring livelihood to other members. Besides teaching skills, they are fun to be around.

“[There will be] a lot less personality in the team [once the seniors are gone],” Jones-Brown said. “Because the seniors bring a lot of vibrant personalities and if they aren’t there, it will be like a kind of lack of bright personalities that really make Speech and Debate fun.”

To bring up team spirit after the season’s over, Rudolph planned an end of season celebration for the team. She began this tradition last year after realizing other MSHSAA sports and activities all have similar senior night activities.

“We as a team hardly ever are all in the same room, even during tournaments because of the nature of speech and debate,” Rudolph said. “I wanted to continue on implementing the idea that we’re not here to win, we’re here to learn and celebrate that learning by having just a short but I think important moment to just kind of reflect on what we’ve accomplished in our season.”

Looking toward next season, the speech and debate members agreed it will be challenging without the guidance of current captains.

“They [the seniors] have been a vital life source to our team for the past four years.” Rudolph said. “And it is going to be a huge loss that I’m not going to pretend will not affect us as a team. But I also see freshmen and other people on our team that I know are very excited to step into their shoes and step into that role.”

Karnati is one of the speech members who are considering applying for captainship next season. She is ready to take up the challenges and is excited about next season.

“[I’m looking forward] to getting more people to do speech and debate and also coaching everyone,” Karnati said. “and helping people improve, because after my four years of experience, I mean, three years now, next year for experience, helping everyone with that.”

Because of the turbulence during the COVID years, Rudolph decides to move the captain application date forward so the new selected captain can learn from the old ones and prepare for next season.

“I think we will do well. I’m taking all the resources I can from Gaaya and Nisha,” Karnati said. “And so hopefully we can use that for future speech competitors.”