Resolved: Everyone should say “Hooray!” for graduated SM East seniors Ali Dastjerdi and Henry Walter, who on Sunday became the first duo in Kansas history to win a national debate title.
Dastjerdi and Walter emerged from the field of more than 200 teams from across the country at the National Catholic Forensic League’s Grand National Tournament in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., over the weekend to take the policy title, breaking through the barrier that had eluded Walter and his brother Karl, who made it to the finals of the tournament last year.
“It’s definitely a very cool accomplishment for the kids, for our school, and for Kansas,” said SM East debate coach Trey Witt.
The win came after a grueling weekend of competition in which the duo woke at 5:30 a.m. Saturday to begin a day that saw them win four of their five preliminary matches, earning a spot in the field of 32 teams in the elimination rounds Sunday.
Coming in as the 12 seed, Dastjerdi and Walter beat their first four opponents Sunday, advancing to the championship round against a team from Pittsburgh. This year’s national debate topic explored whether the federal government should increase non-military exploration and development of the Earth’s oceans. Because the SM East team won a coin toss, they were able to select the affirmative position — their preferred position on the topic.
Witt says he never sits in the room where his students are competing for fear of throwing his debaters off, but he lingered outside the doorway of the final round. Though he didn’t hear the whole debate, he felt good from the bits and pieces that he caught. His team felt confident, too.
“A lot of debates they have won, they tend to second guess themselves when they walk out of the room,” Witt said. “But after that final round, everyone was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel really good about this.'”
And a few hours later, their positive suspicions were confirmed at the tournament-wide awards ceremony: Dastjerdi and Walter had won the policy tournament.
“We had a whole cheering section and neighboring schools very excited for them,” Witt said. “Honestly, I was just so proud of them. They deserve it more than anyone else. They abilities and work ethic have gotten them this far. They are so, so incredibly talented and driven.”
The champion duo will have the chance to prove their mettle one more time. They’ll be competing at the other major national debate tournament, held by the National Speech and Debate Association, in Dallas next month.
Dastjerdi, who is also a member of the Prairie Village Teen Council, is heading off to Harvard University this fall. But SM East students will get the benefit of Walter’s debate prowess even after he leaves for college: Witt says Walter will be debating for the University of Kansas next year, and will also work as an assistant coach for the SM East team.