Debate team finds success amid virtual season

In a season defined by Zoom tournaments without the typical audience, several Hills teams have earned awards.

Members of this year's debate team pictured at a tournament in December 2019.

Contributed by Aria Chalileh

Members of this year’s debate team pictured at a tournament in December 2019.

The debate team at Pascack Hills has had a different season due to restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While the length of the season –– from October to March –– has remained the same, meetings and debates have been conducted much differently. Ms. Deborah Horn, a history teacher at Hills and the debate team’s advisor since 2007, explained how the team has been convening. 

“We have been meeting on Google Meet Tuesdays after school. We have our ‘big’ meeting and then we break off into breakout rooms. We have had fabulous leaders who have trained other debaters,” Horn said. 

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She noted that Sonia Balani, a junior at Hills and lead judge for the team, “would break up our members into mock debates so they can practice.” 

“I help with training and practicing with judges so that they can be ready to judge debates by the time tournaments come around,” said Balani. “I’ve adopted a more individual approach to managing all new judges who I get to train. Coordinating all judges, old and new, for tournaments and also giving advice and debriefs on an individual basis has been the majority of my role as a leader this year.”

With Balani in charge of the team’s judges, seniors Jared Mitovich and Aria Chalileh, co-captains of the team, have focused on the team’s debaters. 

“We teach members the key components of debating, help them strengthen their plans, and organize weekly meetings and mock debate sessions for practice. We also observe debate teams during tournaments so that we can provide them feedback,” Mitovich stated. 

Chalileh added, “another responsibility would be teaching the resolve at the beginning of the year, along with other advanced topics throughout the year.”

All varsity tournaments this year had to be cut down to only two rounds.”

— Aria Chalileh, Hills Debate co-captain

Horn later reported that Mitovich and Chalileh were the ones who had the idea to utilize breakout rooms on Google Meet to help junior varsity (JV) debaters practice. 

The number of tournaments at each varsity debate this season in comparison to the number there are in a typical season has been cut in half. “There are usually four tournaments in the season, but this year we’ve only had two,” Horn explained. 

“All varsity tournaments this year had to be cut down to only two rounds. This change was made due to the differing class schedules across multiple school districts in our league, as well as the need to maximize in-person class time,” Chalileh said. 

Another thing about Zoom is that there is no audience. This makes it more difficult to see who is really shining that day during the debate.”

— Deborah Horn, Hills Debate coach

Tournaments are typically held at other schools in the area that are a bus ride away, allowing the club to compete against other students in the state. They have been held on Zoom this school year due to the pandemic. These circumstances have altered the typical debate setting. 

“Another thing about Zoom is that there is no audience. This makes it more difficult to see who is really shining that day during the debate,” Horn said.  

The team attended a varsity debate on Feb. 10, where Chalileh and Mitovich earned first place in the league, and Andrew Baskin and Jacob Diaz went 2-0.

@phdebaters on Instagram
Mitovich and Chalileh after receiving first place in the Feb. 10 varsity debate.

“It was very rewarding to see our hard work pay off and earn an award in our last year of debate,” Chalileh said of earning first place. Varsity has at least one more debate, on March 24, with a possible April debate being discussed. 

At the junior varsity debate on Feb. 24, members Isabella Ring and Jillian Gerber received first place. Both Ring and Gerber will move up to varsity next year. They will join sophomores Hannah Baskin and Giuliana Balboni, partners who have each earned speaker awards over the course of the season. 

The junior varsity season came to an end earlier in March. Chalileh and Mitovich expressed their feelings towards the debaters that they have helped this year. 

“A highlight of this year’s season was seeing new debate teams grow and thrive despite the virtual format and circumstances,” Mitovich stated. Chalileh added that she enjoyed “watching the new JV debaters acclimate with debate and succeed in their own competitions.” 

A highlight of this year’s season was seeing new debate teams grow and thrive despite the virtual format and circumstances.”

— Jared Mitovich, Hills Debate co-captain

Balani agreed with Mitovich that the experience has been gratifying. “This individual approach has been super rewarding as it’s given me the opportunity to train up some really talented judges who I hope I have inspired to stick around for their next few years,” she said. 

As the debate team’s advisor, Horn discussed her viewpoint on collaboration amongst the team. 

“Overall, it’s just really exciting to watch how the kids have handled the situation and how they collaborate. They all have had such a positive attitude, and I’m so proud of them.” 

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