Pinecrest High Speech and Debate Team Heads for Competition
When Ben Berk attended his first speech and debate tournament as a seventh-grader, his sister was the only member slated to compete. Little did he know he would be pressed into service after another student missed the trip.
"We said, 'Ben, sit down on the bus, and your dad will tell you what this is all about,'" recalls Pinecrest High School debate coach Libby Carter.
To meet the strict dress requirements, Berk, now a junior, donned a girl's leather jacket and his father's tie. Some last-minute preparation and instructions and Berk, excitement overtaking his nerves, was ready.
"It was a huge amount of fun, " says Berk. "I got fifth place and after that I was hooked."
He is now the most experienced member of the Pinecrest Speech and Debate team.
Like Berk, Hanna Bustillo had no intention of being a member of the team.
"It was kinda accidental," she says of how she got involved. "Once I got in (speech) class I really got into it."
She said being involved in Student Congress was a turning point. Congressional debate is a miniature version of our Congress in Washington, D.C. Students, recognized as representatives and senators, write resolutions, research facts, and vigorously debate the issues in a mock version of today's Congress.
"Before that I wasn't interested," Bustillo says. "Then I realized there is a whole world out there."
Berk and Bustillo will be among a contingent of Pinecrest Speech and Debate team members who will hit the road again in May and June to compete in two national tournaments. Twelve students will compete in the National Catholic Forensic League (NCFL) Grand National Tournament in Appleton, Wisc., May 23-26. Eight students will represent the state at the National Forensic League (NFL) National Finals the week of June 15 in Las Vegas.
Two Trips Set
Representing the Eastern District of North Carolina, Pinecrest students will pit their skills in speech and debate against other students from across the country in the NCFL tournament. Competing in speech events are Lizzie Bradley and Ravon Sheppard in oral interpretation, Jenny Questell in dramatic performance and Lasell Bynum in declamation.
North Carolina will be represented in public forum debate by the teams of Meredith Potter and Caleb Frye, David Pferdekamper and Jake Flittner, and Ben Berk and Hanna Bustillo. Ashlyn Karan will compete in Lincoln-Douglas debate and Matt Shuster in congressional debate.
The team will be accompanied to Wisconsin by debate coaches Libby Carter and Robert Sheard along with judges Kim Frye, Jim Flittner and Cameron Gower.
In Las Vegas, competition will be intense as the eight team members compete in the National Forensic League (NFL) National Finals. Only district champions from each state are invited to attend.
Representing Pinecrest and North Carolina are: Meredith Potter and Caleb Frye in public forum debate, Jenny Questell in humorous interpretation, Patrick Sazama in dramatic interpretation, Hanna Bustillo in congressional debate, Jake Flittner in extemporaneous speaking and Ian Shearer and Katlin Christian in policy debate.
The team will be accompanied by both coaches and judges Jim Flittner and Valerie Downing.
Shuster says there is nothing like the feeling of competing in a tournament.
"Being the last one on state, knowing you were the best is the best feeling you could have," Shuster says.
He called competing in debate "addictive."
"When you win you want to come back and do it again, and when you lose you want to come back and do it better the next time," Shuster says.
Teammate Jenny Questell, the only Pinecrest sophomore to qualify for the national finals, says she got uncharacteristically emotional when she realized she finished in the top two at districts and qualified for nationals.
"I started crying," Questell says. "I got so emotional. That's what I've wanted ever since I began in debate. At that moment you know all your hard work has paid off."
The debate team finished third at the 2008 Tarheel Forensic League State Championship held at Northwest Guilford High School in Greensboro. The team competed against a field of more than 450 students.
There, Christian and Leah Elliot earned individual top honors. Christina took a state championship in congressional debate while Elliot won for extemporaneous speaking.
The coach, Libby Carter, was named North Carolina Coach of the Year.
The students were quick to credit Carter for helping them achieve such high standards.
"She takes care of nearly 200 of us," Bustillo says. 'She is the debate mom."
The team also earned the "Traveling Trophy" for highest accumulated district points.
As a team, Pinecrest took third behind Myers Park High School in Cary and North Mecklenburg.
Last year the team finished fifth.
Carter, who was also named District Coach of the Year for 2008, says the team's future is bright.
"The program gets bigger each year," Carter says, "Success breeds success."
Success began for Carter and the debate team in 2002 when Carter, some parents and a seven-member team competed in their first tournament.
"We were scared to death," Carter says. "We didn't know what to expect."
Three of the team members came home with trophies.
"So it was a good day," Carter says with a smile.
Now the program has nearly 100 students involved, and half to three-quarters of that total participate regularly in tournaments.
Carter encourages participation in tournaments and often personally absorbs the cost of registration fees for those competitions. The team is constantly hosting fundraisers to offset costs, but annually Carter says she and parents spend thousands of dollars to afford students the opportunity to compete.
She downplays her financial involvement, saying there are other issues facing the team.
"Now our biggest problem is we can't fit everyone on the activity bus," she says.
Carter credits the students, former students and parents for helping make the program successful.
She says the students are bold enough to tackle any topic, sometimes even teaching her a thing or two. They are tireless researchers and rely on each other for feedback like a family.
"No topic is out of context," Carter says. "If it happened in the world today, we can talk about it."
She adds, "These kids are our future writers, lawyers and some doctors."
Those who compete in debate say the competition makes them more well-rounded, boosts their confidence, and gives them skills they will need to succeed in life.
Many who have benefited from the program give back.
Taelor Dailey, a 2007 graduate of Pinecrest High School and former member of the team, traveled with the team earlier this year to serve as a judge. Schools are often required to provide judges for the competition. Those judges must judge other students.
Dailey, currently a freshman at Sandhills Community College, plans to attend UNC-Charlotte in the fall and major in business and marketing. She praises the program for helping her become a better public speaker, more confident in talking to strangers. She lauds the benefits of being involved in debate for two years, and the influence that Carter and her fellow debaters had on her life.
"The effect it had on me," Dailey says, "I knew this (speech and debate) was what I was looking for."
She called the opportunity to come back "phenomenal" and says she was "incredibly honored" to help the program that has had a profoundly positive effect on her life.
Dailey plans to pursue theater and debate at UNC-Charlotte and says she will gladly come back to Pinehurst to help the program that gave so much to her.
The state tournament finish was typical for the Pinecrest students, who have come to expect their hard work and dedication will pay off in team and individual awards.
In March, seniors Jake Flittner and David Pferdekamper brought home the championship trophy from the Georgetown University "Cherry Blossom" National Speech Tournament. The duo competed in varsity public forum debate. They finished unbeaten. Flittner also received the first place speaker award, recognizing his superior speaking ability throughout the tournament.
In public forum debate, teams must be prepared to argue both sides of a question. Each speaker presents twice during the debate and participates in two timed periods of crossfire questioning.
Pferdekamper credits the success of the program to the hard work of its coaches and members.
"We have a lot of committed, talented speech debaters," Pferdekamper says. "We want to win, but we are always trying to further our team goals. The team is most important."
He also says a diversity of backgrounds and opinions helps the team function at an optimal level.
His coach and teammates agree.
"We are one team that crosses socio-economic boundaries, crosses age boundaries," Questell says.
Preparation Is Key
Staying at or near the top takes preparation.
Hours of extra research, plenty of all-nighters and last-minute cram sessions, fill the lives of these students. And we aren't even talking about school work.
"There are plenty of long nights," Bustillo says. "You end up at a McDonald's or Panera Bread at all hours. Debate is fun, but you have to get used to sleep deprivation."
Juniors Meredith Potter and Caleb Frye can attest to that fact. Normally both can be found in Panera Bread. Surrounded by books, papers and laptop computers, the duo engage in earnest discussion between bites of bagels and sips of coffee.
The one thing they can agree on: the goal of becoming a national champion in public forum debate. The pair, competing for the first time as a team, will compete in both tournaments.
Frye won a state title last year with another partner.
The pair has clicked ever since they teamed up in late 2007. They have finished fifth or better in each tournament they have entered and have compiled a 68-16 record since being paired together.
Frye and Potter have qualified for the prestigious Tournament of Champions held in Lexington, Ky., at the University of Kentucky. Academic requirements will force them to miss that tournament.
"Both assistant coach Robert Sheard and I are extremely proud of the tremendous commitment that these two students and all the students have made," Carter says. "We have high hopes that this might be the year a national championship comes to Pinecrest."
Contact Tom Embrey at 693-2473 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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