By Jeffrey Kahn
The accomplishment of four Strath Haven seniors reached the late elimination rounds of Policy Debate at the NCFL* Grand National Tournament in Sacramento over Memorial Day weekend. Alexander Belanger & Gabe Morbeck made the Final Round, losing on a 3-2 decision. Emma Belanger & Ben Morbeck made the Semifinal Round, before allowing their siblings to advance over them.
That’s right! Two sets of twins powered the Strath Haven team: Emma and Alexander Belanger of Swarthmore and Benjamin and Gabriel Morbeck of Rutledge. A rival coach called them “four of the hardest working seniors I have coached against.”
Emma and Ben actually did not lose a round during the tournament (they were 8-0 overall), but we decided to let Alexander and Gabe debate in the final because they have more experience. Due to their collective success, as well as the other four Strath Haven students competing at Nationals, Strath Haven won the Eleanor E. Wright Award of Excellence in Debate. This award is given to the top five debate schools among more than 500 schools attended this year’s tournament.
How the tournament works: Our teams debated in the five preliminary rounds on Saturday and were in the top 32 at the completion of prelims, advancing to the elimination rounds, where a seeded bracket is created (like March Madness). Unfortunately, two SHHS teams were slotted to meet in the semifinals, so when both teams got there, we had to choose one to advance. It is rare for two teams from one district (yet alone one school) to advance to that level. No one keeps statistics on this, but we can’t imagine two sets of twins have ever done it together.
What they were doing: In Policy Debate, the most intense event in the Speech and Debate world, two-person teams debate an issue of national policy for the year, this year”s issue was curtailing the government’s use of domestic surveillance.
Teams prepare to debate both for (affirmative) and against (negative) the resolution, and debate both sides during any given tournament. When affirmative, you prepare a case for a particular way in which the government should limit surveillance and the reasons why this would be beneficial. When negative, you just know the topic area, so you must prepare a wide variety of research and attacks on affirmative plans.
It is a challenging event that requires learning new information continually throughout the year, constantly adjusting to the news, and processing arguments incredibly quickly during a debate round (which lasts about an hour and a half).
The kids: Gabe and Alexander started debating as sophomores; this was their third trip to nationals. Emma and Ben joined as juniors and this was their second trip. Both had outstanding years, reaching the elimination rounds at various “national circuit” tournaments, including Alexander and Gabe earning a bid to the Tournament of Champions (though they did not go).
All four of them have helped the team, not just through their success and their personal work but by judging and helping to teach younger debaters so the tradition of excellence they created will live on.
Gabe and Ben plan to continue debating in college (at Emory and Rochester respectively) while Alexander will work with Strath Haven debaters while attending the University of Pennsylvania. Emma is attending Hamilton College and will pitch in when she is around.
The team: Speech and Debate as a whole includes ten different events, from different kinds of debates, to Student Congress, to rhetorical and interpretive speech events. Strath Haven had a “club” before I arrived, but we turned it into a team four years ago and have had incredible success, thanks to dedicated and hard working students. We had eight students in total attending NCFL Nationals and have nine students heading to Salt Lake City this week for the National Speech and Debate Association National Tournament; including the four Policy Debaters who are hoping for a repeat performance!
The team has about 50 members at all high school grade levels across all the events, and we travel throughout the year to get the experience to do well at nationals.
These trips are mostly funded by the families themselves, and it is very expensive to fly across the country. If you wish to support the team, please donate via our Edco page, https://strath-haven-hs.ed.co/speech-and-debate.
Jeffrey Kahn is a history teacher at Strath Haven. He previously debated and coached at Pennsbury and in Virginia.