The Many Successes of 2023’s Speech & Debate

This year, our Speech and Debate team returned to full-time in-person competition over the past academic year, and they have achieved outstanding state and national tournament success.

Speech & Debate Team in front of Blue Devil posters
(L-R) Nathan Nguyen ’24, Ava Barbiere ‘26, Jonah Sah ’23, George Tiesi ’23, Rani Green ’25, Eric Barbiere ‘26, Jen Lavagnino-Sisk ’23, Keelin Walshe ’23, Isabella Donovan ‘24, and Michael Menegatos ’26
How the Speech & Debate Program Works

Poly’s Speech and Debate program competes as one large team made up of individuals and pairs of students who participate in a diverse set of events. As the team has completed their regular season portion of the year, they look forward to three national championships and the NY State championships this spring.

Championships and More

George Tiesi ’23 and Jonah Sah ’23 have qualified to all four championships, including the Tournament of Champions (TOC), NY State Championships, the National Speech and Debate Championships (NSDA), and the National Catholic Forensic League Championships (NCFL). George and Jonah qualified to NSDA Nationals as the top team out of the NYC district, winning our regional qualifying Public Forum (PF) tournament. They qualified to the TOC as the second highest ranking bid team in the country. The TOC was the weekend of April 14-17 in Lexington, KY at the University of Kentucky and the NSDA will be held the final week of school, from June 11-16 in Phoenix, AZ.

For the National Catholic Forensic League (NCFL) Championships, partnerships of Ava Barbiere ’26 and Nathan Nguyen ’24, and Eric Barbiere ’26 and Michael Menegatos ’26 qualified in PF.

In Lincoln Douglas (LD), Rani Green ’25 qualified and placed first in her division.

In Speech events, Jen Lavagnino-Sisk ’23 also qualified and placed first in Original Oratory.

Bella Donovan ’24 qualified in Dramatic Interpretation. And Poly’s first-ever Duo Interpretation team of Keelin ’23 and Kester ’25 Walshe qualified. This national championship will be held in Louisville, KY over Memorial Day weekend.

Speech Team NCFL finals
(L-R) Keelin Walshe ’23, Kester Walshe ’25, Amber Dosik ’25, Rani Green ’25, and Jen Lavagnino-Sisk ’23 at the Qualifying tournament for NCFL Nationals.
NY State Championships

For the NY State Championships, Poly qualified students in the greatest number of events ever. Students qualified in two debate events and four speech categories. In Public Forum and Lincoln Douglas, George, Jonah, Ava, Nathan, and Rani are representing Poly Debate. For Speech, Jen, Keelin and Kester qualified to States. In addition, Poly will send two additional Duo Interpretation teams of Bryce Trent ’24 and Zach Ramseur ’24, and Hank Ford ’25 and Adam Ellozy ’24. MaKiyah Turner-Hicks ’24 qualified in Dramatic Interpretation and Amber Dosik ’25 qualified in Declamation. NY State Championships will take place April 29 and 30.

Camaraderie Among Competitors
Associate Director of Speech Cait Bliss and Director of Forensics and Debate Eddie Fitzgerald
(L-R) Cait Bliss and Eddie Fitzgerald

Director of Forensics and Debate Eddie Fitzgerald reports that the Speech and Debate teams, with 63 students participating this year, have had a full schedule of 25-30 regular competitions from September to March.

Fitzgerald said that the students not only love being back to in-person competitions, but also enjoy the social side of seeing friends from around the country at the events. During the regular season, students may compete at two or three tournaments a month, and then travel in January and February almost every week. April through June is post-season with state and national championship competitions.

Fitzgerald oversees the whole program, as well as teaching, and Cait Bliss, Associate Director of Speech, oversees the Speech program and teaches speech classes.

Regular Season Competitions

During the regular season competitions, students earn bids to qualify for state and national tournaments. Our Debate team competes in Public Forum Debate, which has always been a strong event for Poly students with past teams earning national honors. This year Poly has restarted participation in Lincoln-Douglas Debate, which features questions of social issues, diversity, and identity.

Jonah Sah and George Tiesi Debate Team
(L-R) Jonah Sah ’23 and George Tiesi ’23

Fitzgerald said that Poly’s top PF team of Jonah and George are one of the top Public Forum teams in the nation. They are ranked as the top two debaters in NY State.

Sah and Tiesi, who started in the Debate program as Middle School students, won the preliminary tournament round robin at the Harvard Tournament, where a small number of teams were invited to compete. They went undefeated and also made it all the way to the finals of the Harvard tournament, the largest of the regular season.

“[Participating in Public Forum debate] has provided me with opportunities to improve my ability to analyze and understand complex issues and viewpoints, as well as convey my conclusions in a persuasive manner.”

On the right, Jonah Sah ’23

“George and I have been best friends for years,” Sah explained, “which has enabled us to have a fruitful and incredibly enjoyable partnership. We debated together in eighth grade, but have debated with different partners for the past three years. Reuniting with George in our senior year has been both incredibly exciting and nostalgic.”

“Participating in Public Forum debate has been an excellent way to develop my critical thinking, public speaking, and research skills,” said Sah. “It also has provided me with opportunities to improve my ability to analyze and understand complex issues and viewpoints, as well as convey my conclusions in a persuasive manner.” He added, “I have also formed friendships with people from all around the country who share my appreciation for debate.”

Lincoln-Douglas Debate Returns

Rani Green ’25, who restarted the Lincoln-Douglas debate program this year at Poly won first place in that category at NCFL. This has been especially exciting for Fitzgerald who participated in Lincoln-Douglas himself in high school.

Jen Lavagnino-Sisk and Rani Green
(L-R) Jen Lavagnino-Sisk ’23 and Rani Green ’25

“The NCFL was by far my favorite tournament of the year,” said Green. “It’s not because I won, but it’s because it challenged me to be a better debater. The NCFL tournament is a very traditional tournament. What this means is that the debate topics I usually discuss don’t really do well in these tournaments. In fact, at another national qualifier, I almost lost all of my rounds because I couldn’t market my cases to traditional judges. But this tournament, I adapted really well, and I was able to explain myself more, and I really improved.”

“Lincoln-Douglas is a chance to dig deeper into things I care about,” explained Green. “With every topic, I get to examine the morality of laws, propositions, and so forth. I also have the opportunity to advocate for Black people in the debate space, which is really important.”

Green says that the Debate team at Poly has been like a family for her.My coaches have been a huge influence on who I am as a debater, but also who I am as a person. They’ve really helped me grow over the past few years. All the kids on the team have taught me so much as well, and are like siblings to me.”

Eloquent Orators

Bliss explained that the Speech events that Poly participates in include Original Oratory, Declamation, Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, and Prose and Poetry. Bliss, a professional actor, explains that In the interpretative speech events, students develop 10-minute memorized dramatic performances of excerpts from a play, novel, film, or any published work. In Original Oratory, students research, write, and deliver an original 10-minute memorized speech on a topic of their choosing.

Speech and Debate Team
(L-R) George Tiesi ’23, Jonah Sah ’23, Alex Basham ‘26, Rani Green ’25, Kester Walshe ’25, Michael Menegatos ’26, Keelin Walshe ’23, Nathan Nguyen ’24, Eric Barbiere ‘26, Ava Barbiere ‘26, Loch Baird ‘26, Jen Lavagnino-Sisk ’23, and Amber Dosik ’25

In comparison to tournament participation from last year to this, the Upper School team has seen twice as much participation. Nine Speech students have qualified for the state championship, which will be held at the end of April. “We have never taken this many speech students to states before,” Bliss said.

“I became much better at being able to identify logical inconsistencies in my competitors’ speeches and rewrite parts of my argument when needed to make my point more clear.”

An incredible regular season Speech team achievement was MaKiyah Turner-Hicks’24 performance in the Dramatic Interpretation category at UPenn, making it to the semifinals in MaKiyah’s second tournament of the season.

Jen Lavagnino-Sisk ’23, captain of the Speech Team, placed first in the Original Oratory category at the NCFL Nationals qualifying tournament.

“Speech,”  Lavagnino-Sisk said, “specifically this year’s competition season where I competed in Original Oratory, honed my critical thinking skills. I became much better at being able to identify logical inconsistencies in my competitors’ speeches and rewrite parts of my argument when needed to make my point more clear.”

“This year, at UPenn,” Lavagnino-Sisk said, “we brought what I think was the most speech kids to a tournament in my time at Poly. The night before the tournament we all ran our pieces for each other and then gave compliments. Everybody was so supportive and had these amazing pieces and even though it was 10 o’clock at night and I was tired from traveling, the energy in the room was infectious and made me want to spend the whole night watching the team perform and bond over our love of Speech.”

Speech & Debate Team
(L-R) At, UPenn, Eve Harris ‘26, Keelin Walshe ’23, MaKiyah Turner-Hicks ’24, Kester Walshe ’25, Jen Lavagnino-Sisk ’23, Amber Dosik ’25, and seated in front, Bryce Trent ‘24

“Competing in person was an adjustment for me,” added Lavagnino-Sisk, “as I started competing during COVID when everything was virtual. One of the biggest differences that I had to adjust to was my movements. On camera, I only have so much space to walk around. When I switched to in-person I had to learn how to utilize a bigger space.”

Fitzgerald explained that most of the coaching happens before the tournament. At the tournament is the time to make minor adjustments. In Speech, Bliss said, there may be some changes in between rounds for “fine-tuning.”  Additionally, coaches may be scouting other teams to check out the competition.

The Art and Appeal of Public Speaking

Bliss said that they are focusing on community outreach, introducing the Poly community to Speech and Debate. This past fall, Lavagnino-Sisk presented her Original Oratory at an Arts Showcase during Homecoming. This spring, a special Speech and Debate Showcase families of team members will take place on May 17 with presentations in two sessions, one from 4:00-6:00 PM and the other from 6:30-8:00 PM. Bliss said that this will be “a way for people to see how speech and debate can contribute to the Poly community and provide students a platform for advocacy and storytelling.”

“The atmosphere of a debate tournament is thick with excitement and community in a way that draws you in instantaneously.”

As for the future of the program, Fitzgerald, who is finishing his first year as director, hopes to see the continued high level of competition. He also wants the team to be “a place where any student can explore their voice.”

After a very successful Poly debate career, Sah, who plans to continue debate in college, says, “I would encourage anyone thinking about joining Speech and Debate to attend a tournament as soon as possible. The atmosphere of a debate tournament is thick with excitement and community in a way that draws you in instantaneously.”