After yet more coaching changes, speech and debate team strives to maintain national standing

September 11, 2019 — by Anouk Yeh and Harshini Velchamy

“Now presenting your top 14 in Public Forum Debate,” the announcer’s voice drawled out. Fourteen pairs stood on the national stage. Among them were seniors Adhit Sankaran and Ronak Pai.

In early June, the pair along with senior Siva Sambasivam traveled to Dallas to compete at the prestigious National Speech and Debate Tournament. The three ended up performing well — Pai and Sankaran ended up placing 13th in the nation in Public Forum Debate and Sambasivam placed seventh in the nation in Extemporaneous Debate.

The speech and debate team saw notable success in the 2018-19 school year: In addition to the National Speech and Debate Tournament, six students on the team qualified for the 2019 Tournament of Champions in Lexington, Kentucky and Catholic Grand Nationals in Milwaukee, with one public forum team breaking to elimination rounds at both tournaments. 

Overall, the team ended last year as one of the best in the nation in Public Forum Debate and is projected to continue their success into this school year: Saratoga now has two partnerships auto-qualified to the 2020 Tournament of Champions (Sankaran with Pai, and Sambasivam with senior Ashwin Ramakrishna). Only one other school across the nation can boast this accomplishment of having multiple teams qualified, and only eight schools even have a single team. 

Riding on the coattails of the last season’s achievements, the team is looking forward to replicating the same success in the 2019-20 season. But as of right now for the speech and debate team, the road to success looks like a bumpy one.

Just recently, students on the team were informed that their previous coaches, Victor Rivas Umana, Jennifer Leal and Steven Leal, would not be returning. The announcement came only weeks before the start of the 2019-20 season. Especially with the success of the team this past year in both speech and debate, many students were shocked. 

Senior Connor Oaklander, along with many of the other upperclassmen, was surprised by the moves.

“I was totally confused,” Oaklander said. “It was completely unexpected, but I was hoping to go right into the school year with our [old coaches].”

Oaklander is the club’s current secretary and has been on the team since the end of the 2017-18 season. He found the late notification and lack of transparency in the firing of the coaches alarming.

The departure of the previous coaches didn’t just affect coaching but the layout of the entire speech and debate program. Prior to being let go, Umana served as both head coach and club coordinator. Umana’s departure left a big vacancy. 

Returning in more of a direct role to the program is English teacher Erick Rector, who helped coordinate speech and debate last year. Also helping with the speech and debate program this year is new English teacher Matt Granoff. Granoff, who previously competed in public forum debate during high school and college, is planning on coaching public forum and original oratory.

Rector plans to “rebuild a sense of team” in the club. He originally started working with the club in 2007 and was disappointed to see the program he put a lot of heart and energy into deteriorate over the years in terms of organization and consistency. 

The club is enthusiastic to see what this season has planned for them. They are anticipating a high turnout rate of freshman and sophomores joining us for the first time. In addition, they are adding new tournaments the club itself hasn’t gone to before. Some of these include the Yale Invitational, New York City Invitational and Minneapple Debate Tournament in Apple Valley.

Overall, anticipation is high and parents and students are hoping for another successful year. 

When asked about what he expects for the next year, Rector shared his concern that there would be challenges with the transition from what the team used to be last year to how it will be this season. But he has faith in the success of this program and thinks that this may be the opportunity to drastically improve the club.

“[The coaches last year] ran a good program. I think I can run a better one,” Rector said.