The Road To Nationals: After Detours, Highland Park is Getting There 

The partnerships of Tristan Kmoch and Zach Glaser (above), Mason Eischens and Sam Groven (bottom left), and Henry Kelly and Elsa Snowbeck earned a spot at Nationals this December.

This winter, Highland Park’s team started off their road to nationals strong, qualifying three teams to compete at the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) Championship Tournament: Henry Kelly & Elsa Snowbeck, Mason Eischens & Sam Groven, and Tristan Kmoch & Zach Glaser.

Qualifying to compete at Nationals is a huge honor – so Highland Park’s triple-whammy qualification was impressive.

But COVID-19 has upended all aspects of Spring 2020, and the competitive debate season is no exception. The National Speech & Debate Association Championship Tournament, held in June each year, is an exciting opportunity for students to meet and compete with talented speech and debate competitors from across the nation. It usually means making memories on a road trip with team members, enjoying the hotel pool, and souvenir shopping – but for the first time in history, the competition is all virtual.

Learn more about how the Highland Park team members have adapted their approach post-COVID-19 in preparation for the upcoming virtual version of Nationals. 

Qualifying: A Season Long Process 


To qualify for the National Speech & Debate Association Championship Tournament, competitors needed to earn their spot at the District tournaments. Henry Kelly & Elsa Snowbeck were strategic in their approach. 

Elsa Snowbeck explains: “Prepping for the qualifying tournament was really a season-long process. Since we debate against the people in our district throughout the rest of the season, we had already had a chance to debate some of them and were able to strengthen our arguments based upon the counterarguments they originally ran. We also wrote a new affirmative for districts.” 

“Our team worked really hard to get ready, including refreshing most of our arguments and writing a new case. We spent a lot of time preparing to debate the best competitors at districts,” says Henry. 


Next Steps: Building a Smart, Fresh, & Airtight Case


This year’s national topic policy debate topic, which will also be used at Nationals, involved limiting foreign arms sales from the US. After a season spent responding to unique cases interpreting the resolution, Henry & Elsa wrote two new cases: one to cut off arms sales to Egypt, and one to limit exportations of the F-35 fighter jet. 

“We focus our case on how Egypt’s authoritarian regime benefited from weapons sold to it by the US and used them to worsen the conflict in Libya, and the effect cutting off sales would have on domestic politics. We thought this case, in particular, was very educational, because it’s an important issue that’s undercovered by both debaters and the media at large,” says Henry. 


Detour: Debate In The Virtual Space 


Even before the Highland Park High School began its distance learning, the school’s debaters were notified that in-person travel to Nationals would be impossible. Soon after, the NSDA made the decision to hold nationals online. 

The transition to online debate will be challenging and involves many of the same issues involved with regular distance learning. “Even in the best of times, it’s hard to make sure a minimum of 5 wifi connections are all functioning perfectly at once,” says Henry. 

Zach Glaser, who qualified with partner Tristan Kmoch, is already prepared to deal with issues in technology. “Getting comfortable with our arguments will be important both so we can be more persuasive, but also so we’re more prepared to wing it when technology crumbles,” says Zach. “My partnership is used to that–we broke 2 ½ laptops at Blake this year, and that’s just the tip of that iceberg!”

Elsa expects the social element of nationals to be different online. “I think that it’s important to be able to connect with your opponents and judges during the round, and the adrenaline of a competitive round would be somewhat muted by the distance,” she says. 


Destination: On to Online Nationals 


Despite the strange circumstances, Highland Park’s students are adapting to the new format with the same strategic thinking that helped them qualify at districts. “I think online nationals will mainly be different from a debate perspective in what gets prioritized in rounds. Ethos and clarity will become even more important given how much both are lacking over a format like Zoom,” says Zach. 

The new amount of free time has also presented more time to practice. “As the politics junkie of our team, I’ve been thinking of new off-case to write. Writing new off-case and familiarizing with the F-35s aff should give me more ways to stay productive as this drags on,” says Zach. 

Highland Park’s competitors are facing Nationals with the same dedication that set them up for success throughout the regular season. Ultimately, the Online Nationals experience won’t be what they expected – but that won’t stop their team from giving their all.

Elsa says, “I’m really very sad that my debate career had to end like this, but I’m very thankful that I’ve gotten to debate with the UDL and Highland for as long as I have. Debate has been one of the most important parts of my life for a long time, and I hope to stay involved in some respect in the future.”


Watch Highland Park compete at the NSDA Championship Tournament at the NSDA 2020 Livestream. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has created many fundraising challenges for nonprofits of all types. Next year’s national debate topic is criminal justice reform. Make sure students don’t miss out on this critical opportunity to discuss the defining issues of our time in a constructive setting. Give today – any gift of any amount helps.